Fellini's Casanova Review

With what is often considered to be his greatest film, La Dolce Vita, Fellini drew on all the subjects that both interested and appalled him about Italian society and the world we lived in – religion, spiritualism, adultery, sexuality, intellectualism. After 8 ½ Fellini would continue to explore the same subjects, but from a more personal, idiosyncratic point of view. Even subjects relating to Italian history that seemed to demand a broader outlook are also filtered through Fellini’s sensibility and are far from objective accounts, hence their proprietary prefix of Fellini’s Roma, Fellini’s Satyricon and Fellini’s Casanova. Fellini had been contracted by Dino de Laurentiis to make the film of Italy’s greatest lover, the producer hoping to achieve something magical in the combination of the great Italian director and a major American star in the role of Casanova – Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert Redford and Paul Newman were all considered for the part. Fellini however had no real interest in the subject and certainly wasn’t going to even consider basing it on Casanova’s real-life memoirs, which he considered an unreadable bore. Consequently, the film that Fellini eventually made, after kicking the idea around for years and breaking from his contract with de Laurentiis, is more an interpretation of Casanova as a Fellinian vitellone racing through a Dolce Vita-esque series of bacchanalian orgies and seductions.

Arrested and tried by the high tribunal of the Inquisition, philosopher, intellectual, artistocrat and social climber Giacomo Casanova is locked up in the Piombe prison in Venice for possession of books on black magic and indulging in illicit, heretical practices. Escaping from the prison he is forced into exile from Venice and wanders throughout Europe – Paris, London, Rome, Berne, Dresden, Wurtemburg and Bohemia (although never in reality leaving Rome’s Cinecittà studios), a guest at the salons of the rich and titled and the royal courts of Europe, mixing with magicians, clairvoyants, mediums and charlatans, decadent artists and performers, conducting affairs with nobility and entertainers alike, with a 75-year-old Marquise, beautiful countesses, a giant wrestler, a hunchbacked entertainer and a wooden marionette. In every respect, the legendary Casanova outclasses everyone, a charlatan, a seducer and even in performances of his sexual prowess in lovemaking contests. But, like La Dolce Vita’s Marcello, Casanova finds no answers to the questions he is looking for amongst the intellectual and social elite of his time – he’s not a social reformer or critic, but a person who fully indulges in the opportunities that the high-life of society offers a man of his refinement, taking the ups with the downs. He finds the love of his life, Henriette, but loses her to another legendary seducer, Don Juan and ends his days bitterly as a librarian to a count in Bohemia, reflecting over his youthful adventures and exploits in his memoirs.

As the above description perhaps indicates, Fellini’s Casanova is typical of the colourful, bawdy, episodic flights of imagination that characterise much of Fellini’s later works, while retaining all the subject matter that endlessly fascinated the director. Casanova however is a bit of a mess as a film and Fellini’s dislike for his subject is quite evident. Donald Sutherland's performance seems to suffer from his failure to understand Fellini’s working methods (ie. no script) and with both actor and director pulling in different directions, neither of them really caring about the project or the character, the whole thing fails to amount to anything meaningful. Sutherland's particular charisma is there nevertheless and he is a good choice as Casanova, but he seems to gain more from being dubbed into Italian (by Luigi Proietti) than in his own vocal performance. A number of things are notable about Fellini’s Casanova however – the director’s imagination is given full rein here, creating a number of extremely imaginative set-pieces, with no concern for historical accuracy or even a sense of realism. At the same time they do serve to illustrate Fellini’s impression of Casanova and, by extension, certain aspects associated with the young Italian male psyche. None of them however have real coherence or purpose as a whole, adding up to little more than a catalogue of Fellini's obsessions and fetishes, which are fascinating for Fellini fans like myself to pore over, but are of little interest to anyone else. Nino Rota’s music is another delight, taken to a new level in Casanova, abandoning the typical jazzy circus-music arrangements for a more melancholic and experimental score and an electronic music-box-like arrangement for the clockwork mechanical bird which symbolises Casanova’s bedroom exertions.

Fellini’s Casanova is released as a 2-DVD set in France by Carlotta with quite extensive and appropriate extra features. Although the film contains a director approved English dub, there are no English subtitles on either the feature or extras. The disc is encoded for Region 2.

The picture quality, although it claims to be a Newly Restored Master, is actually quite poor throughout. The 1.75:1 letterboxed transfer is not anamorphic. This is an extremely bold and colourful film, but its true colours are never seen here. The picture looks quite faded, blacks are flat and washed-out, showing almost no shadow detail whatsoever. There is additional slight fading down the left-hand side of the frame and some reddish discolouration on the right-hand side. The picture is not perfectly sharp, but is generally clear. There are very few marks or scratches, although some scenes show a bit of wear and tear. Macro-blocking artefacts are rather more common and digital flickering can be seen in just about every frame of the film – misty scenes in particular are almost unwatchable on account of both the fading and the digital artefacts. The picture can look good occasionally, but overall this is a poor transfer.

Casanova was actually shot in English language, but none of the dialogue was recorded live, and it was then dubbed in post-production into Italian. Even though it doesn’t match up to the lip movements, the original Italian soundtrack is the preferred choice and is included here, but unless you can read French subtitles, this won’t be the ideal option. The English soundtrack is included however and is equally acceptable since it was supervised by Fellini himself and has the advantage of Donald Sutherland doing his own lines. The other advantage I find the English version has, is that much of the Italian in the Italian dub is spoken badly with very heavy English accents – as the director evidently wanted it, but I personally find it extremely irritating. A French dub is also provided, as this is a French disc.

French subtitles are selected with both the Italian and English soundtracks, but they are optional on any of language selections. There are no English subtitles on the disc, but in their absence most people will find the English dub an acceptable choice here.

Disc 1
Trailer (1:50)
The trailer is presented in 1.75:1 letterbox and looks to be slightly better quality than the main film, with bolder colours and none of the fading or discolouration. Scenes from the film are shown without dialogue, accompanied only by Nino Rota's music and it looks fabulous.

Disc 2
E Il Casanova de Fellini? (72:35)
Searching for a method of approaching his long-awaited film of Casanova, Fellini charged writer Gianfranco Angelucci with the task of making a documentary before the actual film was made. Using four of the principal Italian actors of the time – Marcello Mastroianni, Vittorio Gassman, Alberto Sordi and Ugo Tonazzi, as well as French actor Alain Cuny, Fellini effectively auditioned each of them and ended up drawing from certain aspects of each of their characters and their thoughts on what Casanova represents. Although the film also takes on psychological and biographical analyses of the character, the film is completely scripted and far from a serious attempt at examining Casanova, but it does bring to the surface all the areas that would be of interest to Fellini – the vitellone aspect of his character that Fellini portrays in I Vitelloni, the fascination with the abnormal, the deformed and the ugly rather than conventional beauty. It’s also very, very funny in places. Among a second disc of pretty substantial extra features this is perhaps the most essential and is possibly even better than the actual feature – it’s certainly more Fellinian. It’s in Italian however, with only optional French subtitles.

Et Fellini Créa La Casanova (28:24)
Just as illuminating however is the interview with Gianfranco Angelucci, who provides a fascinating insight into the film’s genesis, making and history. Among a number of amazing facts, he notes how Fellini, in all seriousness, contacted Casanova through a medium and got direction and approval from the man himself. He provides great detail on Fellini’s attitude, his troubles with Di Laurentiis and Sutherland, and the ideas behind the spoof ‘Making of’ documentary, described above. Again this feature is in Italian with only optional French subtitles.

Les Mémoires d’un Casanoviste (21:42)
Alain Jaubert covers the facts relating to Casanova (1725-98) as far as they are known from historical records and his own memoirs, which Jaubert concludes as being at least 75-80% verifiably authentic, as Casanova was fortuitously witness to many important historical events during his European travels. There is little comparison to the Casanova depicted by Fellini, although an extract of a deleted scene from the film of Casanova’s affair with a young castrato is included here. This feature is in French with no subtitles.

Poly-Gammie En La Mineur (21:27)
Film music composer Alexandre Desplat is called upon once again, as in the extra features of the French edition of Amarcord, to talk about Nino Rota’s music for the film, which he regards along with Amarcord as among the composer’s best work for Fellini and a personal influence on his own work. The music has a strong presence in Casanova, not just on the soundtrack, but in the scenes themselves where people perform on stages and in royal courts. Unlike the typical joyful Rota score, Desplat finds the music of Casanova dark, sombre and intellectualised, but completely inventive, surprising and brilliant. This feature is also in French with no subtitles.

Comparison to UK Fremantle Region 0 Edition
Screenshots are included below for comparison to the UK edition. From the point of view of picture quality, the colour is obviously much richer on the UK edition, while the French R2 looks dull and faded, being particularly murky in black tones. However, closer examination of the UK release shows that the colours look boosted and oversaturated, losing detail that can be seen on the French edition. The UK edition is also excessively grainy, lacking the comparative clarity of the French R2. Macroblocking compression artefacts are equally problematic on both discs. Apart from the obvious colour differences, the principal advantage of the UK R0, is that it is anamophically enhanced, but any benefit that the UK edition could be seen to possess is negated by the grainy artefacting problems. Considering the respective problems, I wouldn't think any one edition is better than the other. The UK R0 does at least have optional English subtitles.
For further details of the Fremantle release, see Anthony Nield’s full review here.

French Carlotta R2 top, UK Fremantle R0 below:

Casanova is not one of Fellini’s best films. Like Satyricon, the subject itself is of little interest to Fellini, who after La Dolce Vita had nothing more to say about Italian society and history other than those areas that pertained to his own obsessions. Those films are of interest therefore for the particular Fellini-esque slant he applies to them, but they never make the full connection that would make Fellini’s Roma such a delight, and his lack of interest in those aspects that could not be filtered through his own ego is evident particularly in Casanova. Carlotta’s DVD release is both fascinating and frustrating. The feature is poorly presented, non-anamorphic, with faded colours and riddled with digital artefacts. The extra features however could hardly be bettered, presenting extensive archive material and in-depth modern-day perspectives on an intriguing film. Unfortunately, the extra features are of little value unless you know either French or Italian – or preferably both - but they offer at least a standard that could be built upon for an English language friendly edition.

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