Among the iconic directors occupying the highest strata of the world-cinema pantheon, Italian madman Federico Fellini is almost certainly the one whose work I find the least interesting. And while one must divide Fellini’s work into at least two categories, cerebral art pieces and over-the-top freakouts, it’s fair to say that Fellini’s style is so extreme in all circumstances that for non-fans, watching Fellini films is like listening to a lunatic rant at top volume. The campy costuming, the grotesque characters, the voluptuous production design, the weird dream sequences—it’s all just too much, especially in the director’s later years, when he often slipped into self-parody.
As a case in point, Fellini’s Casanova is an absurdly overlong adaptation of the legendary 18th-century lothario’s autobiography. Sprawling over 155 interminable minutes—that’s two and a half hours of noisy nonsense—Fellini’s Casanova contains attempts at many worthwhile things, such as questioning whether Casanova actually made emotional connections with his conquests and, on a deeper level, questioning what sort of existential malaise might drive a man to live by his libido. The movie also tries to capture the melancholy notion of an intelligent and sophisticated man who eventually became something of a circus animal, demonstrating his storied virility when the aristocracy of Europe expressed indifference to whatever else he might offer.
Alas, co-writer/director Fellini surrounds these thoughtful elements with endless scenes of cartoonish stupidity. The filmmaker’s usual gimmicks are present and accounted for (extremely ugly supporting actors, women painted with whorish makeup), and he also includes such bizarre characters as a giant woman who wrestles men in a cage before taking sexy baths with her dwarf companions. (It wouldn’t be a Fellini movie without dwarves.) Even the sex scenes are not bereft of Fellini’s excessive stylization. The first carnal vignette, for instance, features Casanova holding onto the hips of a woman with whom he’s copulating and then bouncing around a room like some kind of erotic acrobat.
Exacerbating the strangeness of the scene—and, for that matter, of the whole movie—is the manner in which Fellini presents his unlikely leading man, lanky and sardonic Canadian Donald Sutherland. The actor shaved the front of his scalp for this role, and then applied makeup prosthetics to his nose and chin before topping off the clownish effect with exaggerated eye shadow. He looks like a psychotic drag queen, especially when Fellini frames various point-of-view shots—from the perspective of Casanova’s sex partners—in which Sutherland pumps away at women with the aggression and snarling facial expressions of an athlete doing reps. (Rest assured, not a single frame of Fellini’s Casanova is sexy, despite the presence of lovely starlet Tina Aumont in the supporting cast.)
Since Fellini’s Casanova employs a meandering, dreamlike story structure that wafts back and forth between time periods, the overall desired effect becomes hopelessly obscured. Is the movie supposed to be a criticism of Casanova’s libertine ways, hence the animalistic portrayal? Is the movie supposed to indict the audience for being fascinated by Casanova’s sex life? Or is the movie just another in a long series of intellectually masturbatory indulgences by a director who never seemed to recognize when enough was enough? Maybe you’re a Fellini fan who cares enough to find answers to these questions, but simply raising the questions represents as much effort as I’m willing to invest. As a last thought, however, I’m willing to acknowledge that Fellini’s Casanova is filled with eye candy for those who subscribe to the more-is-more aesthetic, notably during the impressive but bewildering opening scene of an nighttime outdoor carnival in Venice.
Fellini’s Casanova: FREAKY