Fellini Vs. Casanova

Thrilled to publish David Ehrenstein’s appreciation of FELLINI CASANOVA. I should note that I don’t yet have the Blu-ray, so my frame-grabs from the “Hollywood Classics” DVD are a touch hideous.


By David Ehrenstein

Across the course of his peerless career Federico Fellini has produced films both sweet and sour. The “Felliniesque” is cinema at its most bizarre and most moving — often simultaneously as in his primary masterpieces 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita. But sometimes they’re strikingly separate entities. Consider Fellini Casanova — just released as a beautifully produced Kino Lorber blu-ray, replete with a highly informative commentary track by critic Nick Pinkerton.

        Coming right on the heels of Amarcord — arguably the warmest and most convivial of all his works, this meditation on  the life and character of a man whose very name is synoymous with seduction is as cold as the ice featured in its finale. There the anti-hero is seen waltzing on ice skates on a frozen lake with the love of his life — not a woman but a meticulously crafted automaton. Beneath the smooth enamel mask of a face is an actual actress, Leda Lojodice, who goes through her paces so perfectly it’s barely possible to regard her as “real.” This matches Casanova himself as embodied by Donald Sutherland in a performance which, while expert, is a world away from the romantic anti-heroes so memorably embodied by Marcello Mastroianni in Fellini’s most famous films. Even Terence Stamp in the maestro’s other English-language work Toby Dammit (1968) is more simpatico.

        Outfitted with a prosthetic nose and chin Sutherland is the image of Giacomo Casanova. And Fellini Casanova is nothing but image, rather than individual. The project came to him as a “film de commande” of sorts in the Dino Di Laurentiis, the original producer (he left the project before pre-production got underway and was replaced by Alberto Grimaldi) thought a Fellini film about Casanova would fit perfectly into the then-current trend of sexually semi-explicit “art films” made by such greats as Nagisa Oshima and Pier Paolo Pasolini. But while Fellini’ films have been filled with beautiful women for Marcello to make love to (Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimee, Barbara Steele and Nico to name just a few) he wasn’t playing the lead here. Sutherland operates from an emotional remove as Casanova — and so does Fellini.

        As Pinkerton explicats as he got into the project Fellini discovered that the “great lover” was someone he didn’t really like. While the youthful anti-heroes of Fellini Satyricon (1970) romped with all and sundry with great elan, Sutherland’s Casanova copulates as if he were drilling into concrete to lay a new pipe for Con Edison. While Margaret Clementi, Tina Aumont and Olympia Carlisi are more than lovely Fellini seems as  removed from them as his anti-hero. Perhaps this proceeds from the problems the film faced when a great number of reels were stolen from the lab during production and had to be reshot. The thieves were fascist thugs looking for Pasolini’s Salo, then in production as well. They thought it was going to expose their current activities. Instead it was a flashback to the Mussolini period. Fellini portrayed that time as curiously convivial in Amarcord. Perhaps Fellini Casanova would have had a lighter tone had this theft not taken place, necessitating his cancelling of a sequence that would have featured Barbara Steele. But what we have is far from cinematically unsatisfying. It’s a  full frontal attack on machismo and male vanity in every form. Fellini may not be able to feel for Casanova as a man but he does feel for the spectators, male and female, who long for this mythical figure of romance as a kind of “role model” however imperfect.

After this Fellini’s City of Women reunites him with Mastroianni and takes up the subject of feminism — a movement Fellini freely admits he cannot comprehend. He loved women and celebrated them throughout his career, but his love isn’t always reciprocal. And in this Fellini may have been closer to Casanova than he suspected. The films that follow, And the Ship Sails On, Ginger and Fred and Intervista are exercises in nostalgia and his last the sadly neglected The Voice of the Moon an exploration of the fantasy life of a”village idiot’ with a perfectly cst Roberto Benigni. It’s quite warm. But those of us who love Fellini may well prefer Casanova’s frozen cold “Replicant” pas de deux.

17 Responses to “Fellini Vs. Casanova”

  1. Tony Williams Says:

    Bravo, David E. I saw this film theatrically in the UK decades ago and your review gives this unjustly marginalized film its due. Now, if I could fine THE GREEN ROOM

  2. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Fellini had the right attitude to Casanova. The real Casanova was a rapist and a pedophile (even Arthur Schnitzler in his short story “Casanova’s Journey Home” showed him that way) and the cold, empty, void embodied by Sutherland was certainly the most responsible way to deal with someone like him. [https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2001-jun-15-ca-10616-story.html]. Casanova often bought underage girls as slaves in the markets of Eastern Europe and used them for sex.

    Responsible isn’t a word one associates with Fellini of course, but in this case, it was quite so on his part. Still I respect the movie more than I love it. I love ROMA, even SATYRICON more, and of course the stuff until 8 and a Half far more.

  3. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “Responsibility” and “Irresponsibility” goes back and forth with Fellini. You’re right that the “real” Casanova was a repellent character. But romantic legend has given him a desirable glaze. Consequently Fellini’s approach is most judicious. As for his early films Zampano in “La Strada” is a murderer and “Cabiria” is surrounded by exploitative creeps — and in the case of Francois Perrier’s character a madman who tries to kill her. But there is the rest of the world which can be lovely — like the kids that surround her singing and dancing in the film’s heartbreakingly lovely finale. “La Dolce Vita” has both exploiters and the exploited but most shocking of all is Steiner the intellectual Marcello so admires who kills his children before taking his own life. In “8 1/2” things are sunnier in that Guido may be a womanizing liar, but nobody dies.

  4. Agreed that Fellini shuttles between surprising areas of social and emotional commitment, and freeform, blissfully irresponsible fantasy.

    My memory tells me that some big literary figure — Burgess or Vidal? — worked on the English script of FC, and tried his best to get some of Casanova’s better qualities in, which might account for the apparent inconsistencies in the character (which work, in context, to make him all the more chameleonic and unpredictable).

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

    The commentary track mentions Vidal, but in the context of his friendship with Fellini overall (he appears in “Roma”) He gave Fellini some advice on getting “Casanova” made but as far as I know didn’t contribute to the script.

  6. I was convinced something was mentioned in the credits… but no. I think John Baxter’s flawed Fellini biography has something about this (I don’t *think* I invented it). At any rate, there has to be an English-language writer in the mix, since the film was shot in English.

    I do wish the English dubs of And the Ship Sails On — dialogue direction by Mike Hodges — and Amarcord — scrip translation by Charles Wood — were available, just for curiosity’s sake.

  7. “In mid February, Federico Fellini arrives in London for the dubbing of the English language version of his new film, Casanova. The sort of banal, mid-Atlantic dialogue which so irritated English audiences in Satyricon has been banished. Anthony Burgess has been commissioned to put the finishing touches to the script, for Fellini wishes the film to be European, despite the fact that American money demanded an American star.” – Germaine Greer, “The Resort of Impotence”, Spectator 8 Jan 1977

    Christopher Cruise, an American who moved to Italy, and seems to have various employment in behind-the-scenes translation for assorted Italian films, also claims credit for the English dialog.

  8. bensondonald Says:

    Faintly recall a magazine interview with Sutherland when the film was released. He said that Fellini gifted him with Fellini’s cartoon of Sutherland and the director both fleeing from a cursing apparition of Casanova.

    How many times has a director (or producer, for that matter) started a project admiring the subject and ended up an angry debunker?

  9. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Ken Russell was all over the place with his composer biopics. Sometimes he seems torn between admiration and derision as in Ken Russell’s Film of Tchaikovsky and the Music Lovers (its full and proper title ) and sometimes he turned on them as with his notorious Richard Strauss film Dance of the Seven Veils

  10. C. Jerry Kutner Says:

    The English language version of Casanova was, in fact, scripted by Anthony Burgess, and you get to hear Sutherland speaking his own lines which arguably makes it superior to the Italian version.

  11. I think Russell’s attitude varies according to his subject, which is fair enough. The ambivalence regarding Tchaikovsky — whose music he adored — seems to stem from his ambivalence about the romantic view in general.

    FF seems to have floated projects like Flash Gordon and Casanova as catnip for producers, helping him raise funding for other projects. But in this case, he got trapped into making the damn thing. Sent for Giacomo’s diaries. A couple of strong men carried in the twelves hefty volumes. “Oh, the shit!” groaned Federico.

    So he didn’t exactly start this one full of warm feelings for the subject.

    Sutherland says that when Fellini saw him dance with the automaton, that’s when the film came to life for him.

  12. David Ehrenstein Says:

    And it’s the heart and soul of the entire project — a darker version of “Coppelia” In Powell and Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffman

  13. david wingrove Says:

    Bravo! This is a lovely appreciation of a tragically underrated film. Did you know the original cut featured footage of Casanova’s adventures with men as well as women? Years ago a friend produced a documentary on Fellini that showed one of the excised scenes.

  14. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Yes I’d heard about that. There are gay characters in a major scene of the released cut — friends of Casanova’s. But he’s not shown participating in same-sex relations.

  15. Reading the Beverly Gray bio of Roger Corman, and apparently Jack Nicholson was originally supposed to play the title role. Wonder how that would have changed things.

  16. Mastroianni was Fellini’s first choice, as he usually was. (He toyed with casting Olivier in what became Eight and a Half, but his script collaborators knew it was always going to be Marcello.)

    I can’t imagine Nicholson being as cold: there’s usually an ingratiating quality to his performances even when he’s playing an outright villain. But he’s closer to the insatiable seducer type, so might have brought more self-identification, for better or worse.

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