#14 in my ranking of Federico Fellini’s films.
Fellini followed up one of his easiest films to love with one of his hardest films to love, and that has a lot to do with how the production of his Casanova came together. Dino de Laurentiis, the famed Italian producer who had worked with Fellini on La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, felt that Fellini and Casanova were the perfect marriage of artist and subject, but Fellini disagreed. He found Casanova, the historical figure sketched by himself in his memoirs written in prison, to be a disgusting, empty figure. When Fellini finally agreed to make the film, his script wasn’t the happy-go-lucky adventure through European sex that Laurentiis had envisioned, so he pulled out of the project. Soon, though, Fellini had the money together from other sources and he made a movie about a subject he hated.
The movie that this recalls the most is Fellini’s own Fellini Satyricon. Loosely assembled (like every Fellini film since La Dolce Vita) and an absolute triumph of production design, it intentionally has an empty heart at its core. I do think this works better than Fellini’s previous opus, though its intentional distance from the main character doesn’t do the movie any real favors.
The movie begins in Venice during a carnival where Casanova is summoned to a remote island where a nun waits to have carnal relations with him. The lover of a powerful man, she uses this man’s residence to make love with Casanova while the man watches from behind a picture of a fish. The lovemaking is ridiculous and mechanical, set to the sound of an odd music box that Casanova carries around with him everywhere with a golden owl that pops up and down suggestively. When the performance is over, Casanova tries to present his credentials to the rich voyeur in a bid to find his way into a proper place in the upper crust of Venetian society, but the voyeur leaves without a word. That is the core of the film, and what we most get for the movie’s two and a half hours is a variation of that as Casanova grows older, more tired, and less accomplished with the years.
The movie’s core, Fellini’s disgusted view of Casanova as a man, is really centered on the contrast of Casanova’s view of himself, the world’s view of him, and Casanova’s inability to actually be the man he wants to be. Through many of Fellini’s works is the motif of people, especially men, being completely unable to change. It’s why Zampano can’t learn to love in La Strada, Marcello can’t commit to Emma in La Dolce Vita, or why Guido can’t make a choice, any choice, in 8 1/2. That gets revisited in full here with Casanova. He shows up in a place of great wealth, ready to present his credentials and beg for a place as an ambassador or something else, and then he’s presented with a sexual challenge and he forgets everything else.
This ends up turning Casanova into a tragic figure, despite the grotesque nature of himself, because he’s presented opportunity after opportunity to actually improve himself, but he ends up rejecting them all to appeal to his basest instincts. He goes to Rome to visit an ambassador, and before he can fully present his idea to the ambassador, people are speaking of Casanova’s supposed sexual prowess and a challenge gets proposed, pitting Casanova against the ambassador’s carriage driver in how many times they can complete within an hour. Each man is given the choice of a woman, and Casanova chooses the most beautiful woman there, a model. The contrast of technique with both Casanova and the driver in frame is stark as Casanova moves like a primitive automaton. At the end, Casanova’s partner slinks away, but the carriage driver’s partner demands more despite Casanova having won the actual contest. Casanova wants love and recognition, but he wants sexual exploration more.
Fellini has shown his idealized woman before, and they are the kinds of women who are the height of beauty like Claudia Cardinale at twenty-five. Very few of the women Casanova pursues are of that caliber of beauty. So, you take how Marcello is willing to forget everything for Sylvia in La Dolce Vita and you apply that to nearly every woman Casanova comes across, and you can begin to see how little Fellini thinks of Casanova. Casanova loses himself over a humpback, the world’s tallest woman, and the grotesquely dressed and made-up nun. He does come across women as beautiful as Claudia Cardinale, but Casanova can’t keep himself to them. The chief encounter is with a woman named Isabella, played by Silvana Fusacchia. The two agree to meet in a hotel in Dresden, but as Casanova waits for the encounter that never takes place, he finds the hunchback with an insatiable lust. Instead of waiting for this beautiful woman, he decides to lose himself in a carnivalesque orgy with the hunchback.
The movie’s final moments are key. Resigned to his station, Casanova dreams of the women he has had over his life, and he settles into a dance on a frozen lake with Rosalba, a mechanic sex doll he had bedded. In his dreams, she’s the only woman he could ever love, a receptacle for his sexual organ and nothing more. She has no thoughts or desires of her own, just a passive acceptance of pleasing his sexual urges.
I think that Fellini could have made this point in a two-hour movie, though. The extended runtime doesn’t really do the movie many favors. Reading about the movie’s production in this contemporary account from The New York Times, I see that the production was extremely loose with Fellini completely changing characters and scenes when non-professional actors would show up in order to match the actors and characters more fully. He would spend weeks filming a couple pages of the script. He used his script as a guide rather than strict directions, a practice he was comfortable with, and I think Casanova would have benefited from a more structured production. He wasn’t playing with memory like in Amacord or Roma, he was telling the story of a man, and it would have benefited from a clearer view of the man’s downfall into a pathetic joke in a small foreign palace.
What’s there for that two-and-a-half hours is never dull, though. Fellini threw himself at this project, creating a living world of plasticity in which Casanova floats. Fellini just hated Casanova, and he wanted to convince the world that Casanova was worthy of contempt, not adoration or admiration. It’s interesting that a man considered a lover of women would disdain another so much, but I think the core of that contrast is that Fellini felt like he actually loved the women he bedded but Casanova didn’t, that he loved no one but himself.