Fellini's Casanova Review
The seventies were a good decade for Donald Sutherland. Fresh from the success of MASH he would spend those years making mostly interesting choices. Certainly, Alien Thunder and Lady Ice are best forgotten, but then we also find the likes of Don’t Look Now and Klute, underrated gems such as Alan Arkin’s Little Murders or Steelyard Blues and collaborations with some of the key filmmakers of the time, amongst them John Schlesinger and Bernardo Bertolucci. Within this context we also find Fellini’s Casanova, a work often singled out as containing his best performance – Time Out for one describing it as “the most astonishing piece of acting since [Marlon] Brando in Last Tango in Paris”.
Big words, and therefore big expectations, yet I’m not convinced. This is Fellini’s Casanova after all and the director does loom heavily over the entire production. Moreover, this is the Fellini of the seventies – the Fellini of The Clowns, Roma and Amarcord - and as such his personality is writ large over every scene. Indeed, it’s often impossible to discern Sutherland amongst this grandiosity, even more so given that the director has had him uglified: fake chin, fake nose, his eyebrows heightened and the front of his scalp shaven away so that his features sit perfectly in the centre of his face. I’m not saying that Sutherland’s performance is poor or not deserving of its accolades, rather it’s one that’s near impossible to gauge; we’re constantly drawn away from it courtesy of something larger screaming at us from the other side of the frame.
Watching Casanova it’s often easy to forget that Fellini once made smaller pictures – the I Vitellonis and Il bidones or the screenwriting collaborations with Roberto Rossellini – for they certainly bear little resemblance to what we have on offer here. Shot entirely at Cinecittà, we are treated to a blend of theatrics, the carnival-esque and pure cinema which combines make-up, costumes, giant sets, casts of hundreds and sundry other fireworks (including the real thing) to such an extent that the logistics of mounting such a production must surely have been truly awe-inspiring. And yet it could be argued that this is just one big disappearing act as Fellini heads into the distant past with only indulgences for company.
Certainly, in narrative terms Casanova is no more coherent than one of Ken Russell’s own biopics (territory into which is leaps on occasion and not simply because of the casting of Dudley Sutton), rather it picks up on various details – whether biographical or not - and attempts to mould them into something approaching a storyline. The problem is that this collection of episodes (and episodes within episodes, such as the scene with the organists, the gay operetta or the bout against “the strongest woman”) only really gel insofar as they are all given the same stylistic trimmings and come with a voice-over which attempts to sew them together.
What we have then is a film which works best in small doses. It can be incredibly inviting owing to the great warmth and passion Fellini has for this kind of filmmaking (even if his loathing for Casanova himself is abundantly clear) and the manner in which he make even most grotesque of objects/situations/people come across as perfectly beautiful. Yet look beneath the surface – as surely we must with a film of this epic length – and it effectively disappears leaving only a curiously empty experience. In fleeting moments and little interludes it can therefore be quite astonishing, but taken as a whole the overall effect is simply to frustrate.
Casanova finally makes a UK DVD appearance in the form of a two-disc special edition. The first houses the film itself, whilst the second entertains the various extras. Starting with the film itself, the presentation is mostly fine. Transferred anamorphically at a ratio of approximately 1.78:1, visually we only have minor flaws to contend with. The print itself is for the most part clean and damage free and the colours are especially striking. There is some minor showing of grain – though this perhaps to be expected – and it is only during sees which make overt use of fog or dust that any artefacting begins to make itself known. Indeed, looking at Noel Megahey’s comments on his review of the Region 2 French edition released last November , this UK offering would appear to be the superior offering.
As for the soundtrack, this comes in three forms. We have either the original Italian mono, the English language version supervised by Fellini himself and with Sutherland speaking his dialogue, or a French dub. All three are mono and presented as two-channel Dolby Digital. The French mix is of course fairly unnecessary, whilst any preference for the Italian or the English is likely to be down to the individual. In both cases, they sound technically fine, or at least as should be expected for soundtracks recorded post-production – there are no noticeable technical problems, whilst the English subtitles would appear to be a translation of the Italian and not a transliteration of the English version.
The extras on the second disc are all mostly worthwhile. The weakest is perhaps the photo gallery thought this does collect various poster designs, lobby cards and production stills. More impressive is the 2002 documentary entitled ‘The Magic of Fellini’. A combination of newly recorded interviews, a wealth of archive footage and, of course, clips from the films themselves, this is perhaps a little too wayward to be considered the definitive record of the director’s career. Indeed, a chronological approach is eschewed in favour of a more thematic look at Fellini’s career. As such we may skip from Anita Ekberg’s recollections of the fountain scene in La dolce vita to Ettore Scola’s more general thoughts, but there is still much to admire, not least the remarkable glimpses behind the scenes that the collected archive material allows for.
Rounding off the package we also find a lengthy interview with Sutherland. At 45 minutes in length this piece is able to cover a lot of ground, whilst the actor gives thoughtful, considered answers. Certainly, this isn’t your standard puff piece interview, but an intelligent look at both Sutherland’s career (the discussion also takes in 1900 and Don’t Look Now amongst others) and his relationship with Fellini. Indeed, the only flaw is that the sound quality isn’t always perfect and tends to distort, quite piercingly, whenever the volume gets too loud.
Unlike the main feature, subtitles are not available for the interview, whilst those present on the documentary are burnt-in.