Virtually all of the contemporaneous reviews of Fellini’s Casanova say something to the effect of it being a “flawed masterpiece,” an extravagant film with little meaning under all the visual blather. Fellini admits that he set out to expose the void of Casanova’s life, to paint him as a hollow, uncaring, and unloving libertine incapable of feeling true emotions, and so the presiding theme of the film is emptiness, the absence of meaning. It would seem these critics unknowingly pointed out Fellini’s mandate, except that this mandate dampens under the imagery— the unchained camera, the elaborate sets and costumes, the diaphanous performance from a heavily made-up Donald Sutherland (who looks nearly as fabulous as Divine). Rather than a flawed masterpiece, I’m inclined to call this an indirect success.
From the gargantuan sets and lush Nino Rota score, Fellini at first seems to be paying tribute to the first generation of Italian films, the decadent epics like Cabiria and Quo Vadis, and it wouldn’t be the first time he’s done so. Soon enough he’s eager to outdo them. For every drawn out, tiresome scene there follows a sequence of utter brilliance. The point being made, that debauchery, though invigorating in the moment, is essentially vacuous and hollow, is well taken, but it don’t really make debauchery seem all that bad. The film isn’t even very prurient. When not making a mockery of sex through absurd, mechanical movements, its primary sexual set pieces consist of erotic medieval pageantry set to bizarre and out of place synthetic music (and a weird, moving, phallic bird statue is always there for some reason). The only way these characters can truly be considered hedonists would be if tights were a vice and commedia dell’arte some kind of forbidden indulgence. All things considered, Casanova’s life seems…pretty fun.
If anything, his life and the film is filled with material beauty, enough to practically justify itself and made all the more impressive for being done almost entirely in studio. The magnitude and detail of the production design would have you totally fooled if it were not for the deliberately telling artifice, the most explicit example being an ocean made of flowing black plastic. And while this artifice ostensibly means to underline the emptiness, the unreality, the inauthenticity of the subject, it conversely invigorates it. The artificial waves are among the most beautiful and memorable images in the film, and the most evocative, the way an impression of something can capture the feeling of its subject with more intensity than the subject could ever produce. You haven’t really seen a starry night until you’ve seen Van Gogh’s Starry Night, nor a roiling black sea until you’ve seen it made of tarp.
The only thing that seems totally congruent with Fellini’s aims, something he usually has in his films anyway, is plotlessness. Although a somewhat logical progression can be mapped, the film proceeds much like a picaresque novel, only far less giving in terms of obvious character development. Donald Sutherland clearly put a lot of thought into his performance, but a lot of it we cannot see. You constantly have the impression that he or his character is thinking something that he won’t let on. The performance is not for us, but for him. The rest of the sprawling cast also seem to have their own hidden machinations but with less grand vision. Clued in just enough to blend in (as much as anything can blend in this opulent fruitcake of a film) but still just passing figures in the mosaic.
As time passes, Fellini’s Casanova has grown on me more and more. It’s a beguiling film. You’ll find that it lingers with you in a way few other films do. Much like Casanova himself, Fellini’s Casanova dazzles you with charm and decadence, but look underneath and it appears there is only an abyss. And yet as you turn away, a lonely voice down in those depths calls to you, and you realize there may just be something in there that you didn’t expect. | Nic Champion
Fellini’s Casanova comes with a commentary by Nick Pinkerton and an essay by Alberto Zambenadetti.