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/Fantasy/Biography
Studio: Mr Bongo
Format: DVD
Country: Italy

Frederico Fellini’s biopic of the infamous womanising Venetian author is a little unusual to say the least. In Fellini’s favourite of his own films, we follow Giacomo Casanova (Donald Sutherland) throughout his life, witnessing his various loveless sexual exploits as he travels across 18th century Europe. Boasting striking visuals and heavy symbolism, it won’t be to everyone’s taste.

The film opens in Venice, where the annual carnival is taking place. After witnessing the festivities, Giacomo Casanova begins his run of sexual adventures. First, in Venice, he puts on a sexual performance with an actress dressed as a nun for the voyeuristic pleasure of a rich noble. Then, after a brief imprisonment for supposedly practicing the dark arts, he escapes to Paris, where he conducts an insane ritual designed to transform an elderly aristocratic woman’s soul into that of a young man’s (predictably, using sex, with the addition of a candle headdress!). Later, after apparently losing his sexual potency (after inevitably catching a venereal disease), he travels to London, where he is fascinated by a giantess, and gets a kick out of watching her being bathed by two dwarves.

Over his life, his sexual encounters become less and less fulfilling, to the extent that in Dresden, a woman rejects his advances and he instead participates in a bizarre orgy with a hunchback and two heavyset women. He lives his final days sad, ridiculed and alone as a librarian at a count’s residence in Bohemia…

The visuals are striking, if a little unusual. Each city Casanova visits is represented in a very theatrical way, by a minimalist set (the ocean is represented by billowing bin liners in one scene, for instance, whilst London is shown as a single cobbled street shrouded in fog).

The costume design is also very impressive, deservedly winning an Academy Award. Each of Casanova’s outfits is extravagant to the extreme. They become less over-the-top throughout the course of the film (in early scenes and flashback sequences, he appears as a strutting and garish peacock, but he gradually becomes more subdued and dapper as he spirals into old age and depression).

Everything about the character of Casanova is designed to make him grotesque – from the horrific hair and makeup (including rolled and bunched hair, and a shaved crown to make the hairline more severe) to his sickening expressions during intercourse and, of course, the very fact that it’s Donald Sutherland playing him (not exactly the most conventionally attractive man). He’s portrayed as largely emotionless – an automaton seeking sexual gratification while avoiding attachment. At no time do we feel anything for his younger self; on the contrary, he is quite repulsive. Only in the final act to we feel any empathy (or is it pity?) for him, when he’s being mocked.

The whole film represents a man’s need to gratify his desires and his inability to connect on any emotional level. No matter where Casanova travels, no matter what he goes through, he will never find happiness, he will never find love. Easily the most poignant scene is a fantastical moment where Casanova falls for a doll-like woman, and, after seducing her, continues to dream of her for the rest of his life. She is, in reality, his ideal woman – she will never resist his advances, and never require him to engage with her on anything more than a physical level. In this moment, the true sadness of Casanova’s character is revealed: he is utterly unable to love a real woman, and has to make do with a mannequin.

Some scenes may appear a little laughable to some, as the acting and characterisation is, at times, very exaggerated. This is still in keeping with the dreamlike, theatrical feel of the film, but it may annoy some viewers.

It’s not the symbolism, exaggeration and flights of fantasy that irritate the most, however. What really grates is the clumsy Italian dubbing of Donald Sutherland on this particular DVD, which distracts to the point of having a detrimental effect on the story!

Despite the heavy-handed dubbing of Sutherland, and the love-it-or-hate-it theatrical visuals and acting, Fellini’s Casanova effectively tells the story (impressive considering the lack of real plot points) of Italy’s most famous libertine. The film’s unusual visuals are effectively simple, and though the film begins emotionally shallow, it becomes quite poignant by the conclusion. SSP

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