Fellini's Casanova
(Il Casanova di Federico Fellini) (1976)
Directed by Federico Fellini

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * * *

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Synopsis & Analysis
Federico Fellini's Casanova, which chronicles the life of its eponymous hero from shortly before his imprisonment in the Piombi in Venice to his old age in the service of Count Waldstein in Bohemia, is a remarkable and deeply affecting masterpiece. Filled with lavish, often peculiar, and highly stylized sets, ablaze with the ornate, vibrantly colored costumes worn by the actors, and suffused with a delicious sense of sadness tinged with a cold humor, the movie is consistently mesmerizing both visually and narratively.

There is not a moment of his brilliantly realized film to which Fellini has not given a truly intoxicating loveliness. From its opening sequence depicting the celebration of the Doge's marriage to the sea, in which a colossal statue of Venus is raised up from the waters of a canal amidst fireworks, while hosts of masked onlookers crowd the surrounding bridges and walkways, until its conclusion, in which the protagonist dances with a mechanical woman under a night sky, the director has created a work that is so astonishingly beautiful it is more like a revelation, in quick succession, of a series of paintings done by some great master than it is like most other films. Between Casanova's thrilling beginning and its wistful end, Fellini thus reveals to the viewer gorgeous visions of the hero sailing upon a windswept and obviously false sea, of the guests at various parties and banquets dressed in the sumptuous fashions of the Eighteenth Century, of a monstrous artificial whale, into the mouth of which spectators climb to watch a show within, and of so much more. There is hardly an instant of the movie that is not perfectly framed, choreographed, and filmed. Casanova is simply stunning merely to look at.

Fellini has not, however, stopped at creating a visually engaging spectacle. He also relates a story filled with such a plethora of fascinating and well realized incidents that he never allows the moviegoer's attention to wander away from these events. At different times, the director reveals how the libidinous hero seduces and cheats a gullible, elderly French noblewoman by pretending to be a powerful sorcerer, is mocked by a pair of unpleasant Englishwomen and tossed out of their carriage, listens to a precocious young girl discourse on the impossibility of God's having impregnated the Virgin Mary through her ear, has sexual relations with a nun while being watched by the French ambassador to Venice, engages in a competition in Rome to determine whether he or a local lothario can have sex more times in the space of an hour, and more.

As captivating and exciting as these scenes are, they are given even greater appeal by the genuine humor with which they are often imbued. One sequence depicting a lecherous Italian nobleman playing a butterfly in a bawdy operetta, in which he lusts for a young man dressed as a bumblebee, is not only beautiful and telling, but is also truly hilarious. Such pronounced comic elements do not, however, merely make the film funny, but add to a poignant sense of melancholy which seems always to be present in the protagonist's tale. By so mingling his often incisive humor with a terrible sadness, and both of these with real feelings of excitement, Fellini has managed to craft an invariably enthralling and wonderfully touching movie.

The film's capacity to stir up these emotions is considerably enhanced by its structure, which is not unlike that of a memoir or even that of a picaresque novel. Casanova's adventures, as a result of this structure, continuously remind the viewer of those of one or another amoral or despicable hero whose less than admirable doings have been similarly portrayed. Moreover, by dispensing with an ordered, modern plot, and by carefully weaving together the diverse episodes and incidents which constitute his film, Fellini evokes the sensibilities of another time so that the viewer, having been drawn out of the current age, is able to lose himself in that distant era.

Finally, I should note that the actors, without exception, acquit themselves well and bring out precisely the qualities required for their characters. Donald Sutherland, in particular, is a true delight to watch. He exposes the Eighteenth Century diarist to be a pompous but sympathetic person who is, in many ways, trapped both by his own limitations and by the expectations others have of him. Thanks to the actor's subtle and moving performance, the viewer is able to see how the character, though he desires to make a name for himself for his intellectual and literary accomplishments, is always frustrated. He reveals how others are interested in Casanova only for his amorous prowess and how the character himself lacks any real skills in other fields. Even his carnal adventures are exposed as absurd and exaggerated. When Fellini depicts the man's sexual conquests, he repeatedly emphasizes the crudeness of Casanova's efforts by setting them to ridiculous music and showing the great lover pumping away with all the finesse of a bull servicing a heifer. In the end, Casanova emerges as a genuinely comical but profoundly tragic individual. We are thus, simultaneously, made to laugh at his posturing, his conceit, and his frustrations and to feel sorrow for him because he is limited by these very traits.

Fellini's Casanova is one of the loveliest and most enthralling films I have ever encountered. It is a consistent and wonderful joy.

Review by Keith Allen

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