on 15 November 2005
It is a common misconception that Fellini became worthless after his grand-masterpiece 8 ½, with most critics dismissing all but Amarcord as lightweight, over-blown odes to pretension, not fit to hold a candle to the low-key delights of La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, etc. Though it's true to say that Fellini's interest in "straight" cinema post-8 ½ did wane slightly, with films like Juliet of the Spirits, Roma, Satyricon and The City of Women all substituting character depth and clear storytelling for grand gestures and theatrical stylisation, there were at least a few of his later films that have aged surprisingly well and can, in some respects, be viewed in hindsight as being as interesting and artistically relevant as those earlier, more acclaimed works.
Casanova is one such film, as far as I'm concerned. Certainly, the film can be seen as excessive in the most self-indulgent way possible, what with the stylised set-design, reliance on theatricality, over-the-top performances, and all manner of outrageously comedic, wildly frivolous, fornication. Fellini carefully mixes the highbrow (discussions of art, philosophy and the notions of freewill) with the lowbrow (clowns, carnivals, sex contests and the kind of innuendos usually reserved for Benny Hill), structuring his film in a highly episodic fashion so that it (at times) feels more like a collection of scenes as opposed to one long cohesive films (though, having said that, pretty much all of Fellini's later films were defined by their episodic structures). It certainly won't be a film that every one will appreciate. The middle-part of the film (in which Casanova falls in with the carnival set and the seductive giantess) drags a little, whilst younger audiences might find some of the more earnest scenes laughable (the ending is particularly touching).
Like all of Fellini's films from La Dolce Vita on, the cinematic design is absolutely impeccable, with the director creating his usual (or should that be unusual?) fantasia of abstract architecture, theatrical lighting and seas made of shimmering sheets of plastics, in which he drops characters chosen more for their physical look and presence, rather than their acting ability. This adds to the overall dreamlike (or nightmarish) atmosphere that the film seems to play on, with the only real anchor to the story found in the humanistic performance of Donald Sutherland as the titular anti-hero. Now, before anyone starts to question the casting of Sutherland - instead visualising a Heath Ledger type of blonde locks and rippling muscles - it is important to note Fellini's obsessions with the grotesque; in both the physical and the mental. His image of Casanova is of a lanky, gaunt, balding buffoon, who peers down his jagged roman nose at the intellectual cretins who are supposedly his equals. He's strangely reminiscent of Mr. Burns from the Simpsons, what with the whole look and attitude, but... instead of letting him becoming yet another Fellini-esque caricature, Sutherland allows shades of depth and humanity to permeate the arrogant and pompous exterior.
So, on the one hand, we have Casanova as a pompous, strutting, impotent grotesque, but on the other hand, we also have a man capable of intellectual discussion, poetic thought and moments of intense loneliness. After two hours of epic spectacle, painterly visuals and more slapstick sex than you can shake a 'Confessions Of...' at, we begin to see what Fellini intended with his depiction of Casanova, with the underlining concept of unrequited love and the notion of sex and death, sex as loneliness (etc) and the ultimate downfall of a man who'd built his entire reputation on lust and virility slowly brought down by the ravages of old age and the scorn of a younger generation. The most touching scene in the film for me - and the entire reason as to why I view Casanova as a minor-masterpiece - comes towards the final act of the film, when the aging Casanova breaks off from a rowdy dinner engagement and finds himself alone with a mechanical ballerina. Consumed by a deep desire for the marionette, which reminds him of a lost love from the past, Casanova watches the doll dance and twirl and states that something so beautiful should be spared the indignity of seduction... however, he later sleeps with the doll, ultimately beginning the downward spiral that will bring us to the end of the film.
The final scenes of Casanova are very vague, and I'm certainly not going to pretend that understood everything that Fellini was trying to say. Ultimately, the film worked for me because I understood what the director was trying to say in regards to unrequited love and I felt that Sutherland's performance (certainly one of the most neglected performances he gave in the 70's) managed to undercut the more over-bearing elements of Fellini's direction, and gave us a real character filled with pain, fear and emotional contradiction. The pace and structure of the film and the idea of a central character as a writer telling the story as it unfolds is reminiscent of La Dolce Vita, something that other viewers and critics have pointed out elsewhere, with the idea that the two films are merely different variations on the same story.
The film is flawed, without question, but at the same time I find it absolutely fascinating and beautifully put together. It's appeal will no doubt be limited by the theatricality of the design and the stark, caricatured performances, though I feel the film will, regardless, appeal to those viewers who appreciated the director's other key-works from the same era, particularly that nightmarish cornucopia of excess, Satyricon, the free-form reminisces of the picaresque Amarcord, and the grand-allegory of ...And the Ship Sails On. It's also worth a look for Sutherland's central performance as the libidinous wretch, and for anyone who appreciates difficult, highly-visual, European cinema.