A Venetian carnival acts as the prologue to a story that details a series of Casanova’s erotic encounters as the legendary lothario journeys across Europe visiting some of the 18th century’s most prominent cities. As a guest of various courts, Casanova deflowers a frisky nun, competes in a challenge as to who can satisfy a woman the most times within an hour, and suffers from great personal angst brought on by the realisation he has no real place in the world. Casanova imagines himself as a romantic figure, a man of education in a world populated by the savage - a view that brings him both adoration and ridicule.
Fellini was never more “Fellini” than he was in 1976 with his Casanova. This epic tale of uncontrollable debauchery is a work of cinematic art that has rarely been equalled. With a visual eye that has influenced directors from Tim Burton to David Lynch, Fellini’s fantastical imagery was never more realised than in Casanova. In early scenes the central character rows a gondola across a stormy sea made up from used black bin bags. Later, as Fellini’s distaste for Casanova’s lifestyle becomes increasingly clear, what he has described as the “void” in his subject’s life becomes more evident in the episodic depictions of his adventures. It is both fitting and significant that the final act of a life spent pursuing such personal gratification, despite Casanova’s insistence that he actually loves women, is a dream sequence involving an animatronic life-size doll that the anti-hero relates to more than any other.
The symbolism contained within the film is strikingly blunt and also cryptically confusing. Repeat viewings of the film would be necessary to appreciate and identify the depth of the layers hidden within Fellini’s Casanova, and even then some will remain a mystery. Perhaps this is the point, perhaps it is the intention of the director to confuse his audience while bewildering them with beautiful, overtly sexual imagery. It is poignant that at one point in the film one character turns to another and questions “You do know it’s symbolic don’t you?” The performance of Donald Sutherland as the lead emphasises this further; it being so intensely involved as to be almost comedic.
As an introduction to the Italian master’s work, Fellini’s Casanova is not the best place to start. As sweeping a statement as it may be, La Dolce Vita and 8 ½ are two of the most influential films of all time, and are more successful in their ambition than this film. They are true classics, examples of a style of modernist fantasy of which Fellini was the major exponent. Fellini’s Casanova is stunning, it is an important piece of work, but there is no doubt it isn’t as approachable as some of Fellini’s other films. Brilliant but undoubtedly flawed. A little like Casanova himself.
FELLINI’S CASANOVA / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: FEDERICO FELLINI / STARRING: DONALD SUTHERLAND, TINA AUMONT, CICELY BROWNE, CARMEN SCARPITTA / RELEASE DATE: SEPTEMBER 7TH