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Fellini's Casanova
cast: Donald Sutherland

director: Federico Fellini

148 minutes (15) 1976
widescreen ratio 16:9
inD DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Federico Fellini was perhaps the ultimate cinematic auteur. He would work without scripts, and would alternate between dictating his actors' intonations and refusing to tell them what to do for fear that they would play his description of his idea rather than the idea itself. Critically panned at its release, his Casanova departs from the typical romantic glorification of the notorious libertine to criticising him and presenting him as a tragic figure.

The film itself has no real plot. Casanova is a Viennese gentleman who begins by bedding a nun and, when imprisoned for heresy and black magic, is forced to escape and live the rest of his days travelling around Europe bedding more and more bizarre sexual partners until he dies, poignantly declaring his love for a mechanical woman while dancing on ice (and yes... it is as odd as it sounds) thereby revealing himself to be a pointless and empty shell of a man. Unable to have a real relationship with a real woman, unable to live up to his vainglorious boasts of being a philosopher and economist, he dies utterly alone. His life wasted.

According to Donald Sutherland (who gives a very candid and articulate interview included as an extra but arguably worth the price of the DVD on its own), Fellini didn't care about the real Casanova. He found his biographies dull and he threw all of Sutherland's books on the man out the window of a moving car. Fellini's motivation was to criticise the culture of empty-headed sexuality and solipsism that pervaded Rome in the 1960s and 1970s. The sex scenes are beautifully produced; the actors and actresses cavort on huge sets with dozens of extras in beautifully ornate and exotic costumes that are more reminiscent of operas than your average film's romantic 'climax'. However, despite the lavish production, these scenes are also completely devoid of any sensuality or romance, scored with circus music they verge on the comical or disturbing. Each time a scene concludes, Casanova moves on in time and space and finds himself falling in love again and again until he finds himself an old man with nothing but a mechanical woman incapable of thought or love but strangely no different to him. Whereas at the beginning of the film you think that a mechanical bird symbolises Casanova's sexuality, by the end you realise that because Casanova is his sexuality, he is no more real a person and no more capable of love than the mechanical woman in his arms.

This film is weird and challenging to the point of being opaque. The production values dazzle the eye and mislead the mind. It was only after I'd taken a few minutes to think about the final scene that the point of the film fell into place. Less accessible than many of his other films, this isn't an easy watch. However, it is worthwhile. Sutherland's interview nicely brings out the themes of the film and gives wonderful details on how difficult it was working under Fellini. As an intellectual argument, the film is challenging (when was the last time you saw anyone other than a reactionary do anything than champion sex?) and as a piece of art it is astonishingly bold and unique. However, as strong as these two elements of the film are, Fellini's decision to focus on them has resulted in the plot and dialogue being atrophied. The dialogue was dubbed in post-production and there is no plot to speak of, making it clear where Fellini's priorities lay. Other reviewers have argued that this results in a hollow viewing experience as the emotions are rarely appealed to, but I would argue that this is to miss the point of the film.

The film comes with a lengthy interview with Donald Sutherland and a featurette on the life of Fellini and both are utterly excellent. If you are thinking of taking an interest in his work, I can think of no better introduction to his methods and artistic viewpoint. Combined with the intriguing and challenging film, this is a DVD that's well worth a look. Sadly though, this version is not the original version, it lacks nearly 20 minutes. Research reveals that the original version of the film featured a homosexual scene and it's possible that this was left on the cutting room floor and that it accounts for the lost 20 minutes but, even if this isn't the case, there's still 20 minutes missing from this version. It's still well worth a look for anyone who is even remotely serious about the filmmaker's art.

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