REVIEW: DVD Release: Fellini's Casanova

Film: Fellini's Casanova
Release date: 1st May 2010
Certificate: 15
Running time: 148 mins
Director: Federico Fellini
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Tina Aumont, Cicely Browne
Genre: Drama/Biography
Studio: Mr Bongo
Format: DVD
Country: Italy

Giacomo Casanova is a writer, a wit and an aesthete. Venturing out from his native Venice and passing through the hedonistic capitals of Europe, he seeks to be recognised for his manifold and self proclaimed talents in the higher arts. But in his reckless wanderings, Casanova comes to realise that all anyone is interested in are his sexual escapades. Fellini called this film his masterpiece.

The film opens during one of Venice's famous carnivals. A statue of Venus is to be raised from the Grand Canal, but the supports break and she is one again engulfed by the water. Subsequently, Casanova, who has witnessed this while masked, is brought a note, asking him to attend an island where a nun excitedly awaits his ravishment.

On arrival, he learns they are to be watched by the French Ambassador who proclaims Casanova's sexual genius, only to disappear when Giacomo asks for a reference to the King.

On the return from the island, Casanova is accosted by the inquisition, who imprison him in a cell he can barely stand up in. However, he shortly escapes and embarks on a travel across Europe; Italy, Germany, Britain and France, hoping to make his mark as a man of letters, but everywhere he finds debauchery and disappointment - his string of sexual conquests hollow as he chases nonexistent dreams.

In Dresden, Casanova chances upon his mother in an empty Opera House. She can no longer walk and he carries her to her carriage, but after she drives away, he realises he has forgotten to ask her address to write to her. Finally, at the end of his travels, Casanova finds a position as Librarian at Waldstein. But he has become an object of ridicule, forced to eat with the servants. He is left to dream about the one woman he found in his travels whom he considered perfect. An automated doll…

Fellini's Casanova is a haunted dream journey through spectacular sets, populated by a bemused Giacomo and a surreal circus of grotesques. Deliberately as un-erotic as possible, Fellini meditates on the emptiness within Casanova, and the artifice that surrounds him in the debauched European nations - artifice that Casanova cannot help but beg for recognition from. The film is an incredible vision that does not readily open itself to explanation, but rather needs to be felt emotionally through the absurd chaotic journey on which Casanova is our steadfast guide.

The occasional narration by Giacomo provides the reinforcement that the madness we are witnessing is in fact Casanova's madness, even while Donald Sutherland provides an imperious and unrelenting presence as the stillness at the centre of each scene. Sutherland, despite being possibly the least likely actor ever to portray Casanova, radiates a softness and unnatural beauty that is quite unexpected. It is a triumph, therefore, that he never allows Casanova to become an object of sympathy or to allow his naiveté to overcome his dialogue with the audience. Fellini despised Casanova. Sutherland allows him to become an object of ridicule without compromising the character's integrity. The audience are left unmoved by Casanova's journey, upon which he learns nothing, tells the audience nothing, creates nothing, leaves nothing, and ends up with nothing except a dream about a hollow woman. When other stories about Casanova focus on tremendous amounts of sex and ribaldry, this is a film that dares to show the dark side of the very first ‘playboy’.

However, this does not make for easy viewing. The plot is nonexistent, the Brechtian theatrical techniques are many, constantly reminding the audience that they are viewing a facade of a facade, and the main character is a perpetually deluded freak for whom sex becomes such a routine, that it has all the eroticism of training for and participating in an Olympic sport, and for whom women drift into nonexistence.

For all that, Fellini keeps his audience through incredible scenes. London is a perpetual road in a pea soup fog, inhabited by a 7ft woman fighter who is attended on by two dwarfs. Casanova blunders through, lost and alone. In Germany, he finds a hall filled with pipe organs, played discordantly, and then concordantly, presided over by a comatose Dudley Sutton. As pure cinema, this is as good as it gets. Scenes that will etch themselves into the brain and never leave.

Fellini called Casanova his masterpiece. It is. However, that does not make it easy viewing, nor does it make a whole lot of narrative sense. Casanova is very much a film that requires its audience to feel rather than to think, and what is more, promises to leave them unmoved. It is a brave filmmaker who desires to pull off such a feat and a rare filmmaker that succeeds. A compelling film. PE

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