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DIRECTED BY: Federico Fellini
FEATURING: Donald Sutherland
PLOT: The dashing Venetian nobleman Casanova wanders around 18th century Europe seducing every woman who catches his eye.
COMMENTS: Federico Fellini agreed to direct Casanova before he had read the Venetian libertine’s memoirs, which had only been published in 1960 in their complete uncensored form. After he did, he discovered that he hated the protagonist.
Perhaps that distaste partially explain why Donald Sutherland seems so wrong for the role of the notorious Lothario. The film’s Hollywood backers initially wanted Robert Redford for the part; Fellini vetoed them. Fellini wanted Marcello Mastroianni; the suits vetoed him. Sutherland was a compromise. But, in keeping with his loathing of the character, Fellini chose to outfit Sutherland with a grotesque fake chin and nose, powder his face, and shave his head and eyebrows and replace them with a ridiculously coiffed wig and stenciled brows so that he looked like a rejected contestant from Ru Paul’s 18th Century Dandy Drag Race. It’s hard to imagine even the most desperate Renaissance floozy being hard up enough to willingly lift her petticoats for this Casanova. Perhaps that’s why, in an odd decision that bothers me more than it probably should, everyone in the movie keeps their frilly long underwear on during the manic but completely unerotic sex scenes. Casanova also has a golden wind-up mechanical owl, who pistons up and down and accompanies his assignations with a series of blips and bloops scored by Nino Rota. The lovemaking scenes are supposed to be comic—I think—but they comes across as slightly creepy, like sex scenes choreographed by an alien who’d fast-forwarded through a couple of Eurotrash sex films the night before, but didn’t have human sexual mechanics completely down.
To be fair, Sutherland does look the part of the spent, past-his-prime Casanova eeking out a humiliating living as a librarian for Count Waldstein; and the end of the film is where Fellini, too, finally shows some compassion for the drained rake. But overall, Casanova is overlong, unsympathetic, miscast, and a failure of tone. That’s not to say it’s entirely without interest, however; this is Fellini, so there’s always the possibility that some carnival with a 7-foot woman attended by two dwarfs in powdered wigs is waiting around the next bend. The costuming and set design are superlative. Fellini recreates the capitals and castles of old Europe on Cinecittà‘s indoor sets, including the impressive opener in Venice, where a giant bust of Venus rises from a canal during Carnevale as fireworks splatter the sky. Even the stormy Adriatic Sea is recreated as a sea of rustling black plastic tarps. And you can look forward to such oddities as a dinner party of necromancers, and Casanova finally discovering the great love of his life: a lifelike automaton complete with realistic artificial genitalia.
Although there’s a reason Casanova has been neglected all these years (Fellini once called it his worst movie), it easily merits a guilty peek for curiosity-seekers. In some ways, the scarcely-controlled extravagance and emphasis on mise-en-scène above all else reminds me more of early Ken Russell than it does late Fellini.
Fellini filmed an episode with Chesty Morgan that was cut from the final edit of the film. (Her name still appears prominently in the credits, and I kept waiting for her to show up to see what Fellini was going to do with her, er, talents).
Despite winning an Oscar (for costuming), Fellini’s Casanova was always a neglected entry in the Maestro’s canon. It didn’t even earn a DVD release in the US. In 2019, Cinecittà restored Casanova in the course of their massive remastering of Fellini’s catalog. Criterion apparently passed on it for their Fellini box set, but in December 2020, Kino rescued the film from home video limbo, sending it straight to Blu-ray. A thoroughly-researched audio commentary by film critic Nick Pinkerton is the only special feature of this edition.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…much less about the self-proclaimed 18th-century philanderer, his life and his times, than it is the surreal, guilt-ridden confessions of a nice, middle-class Italian husband of the 20th century… I don’t know how else to interpret this strange, cold, obsessed film, which I find fascinating, because I find the man who made it fascinating, a talented mixture of contradictory impulses, and as depressing as an eternal hangover.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by Caleb Moss, who argues “Any question of this film’s weirdness can be directed to the scene where Sutherland performs a bizarre sex-change ritual with two women that involves a candlewax head dress…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)