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Casanova is bawdy historical speculation, metaphysical farce, sensual overload, ironic critique of Enlightenment values. It has everything you expect from Fellini - visual clutter; dislocated tonal shifts; childish slapstick in an epic framework; Dionysian outbursts; gaudy sets; ludicrous costumes; messy gags; philosophical ruminations; European picaresque; unforgiving seas; dwarves; arm-wrestling giant princesses; aristocratic orgies; butlers and their catamites; mechanical dolls; hunchbacks and nuns in heat; mocking, otherworldly Nino Rota music; squalid grandeur; sex contests; mists of abyss; noise; the terrifying silences behind the noise. The defiance of realism is total. Just because a film isn't very original, doesn't mean it isn't worthy. Or, more importantly, great fun.
Anyone expecting, from the title, Tinto Brass 70s-style Euro-art-porn, will be very disappointed. There is precious little nudity, and the sex is ludicrous. This farcical treatment is in keeping with one of Fellini's main themes. Casanova is among the most famous names in history, a readily recognisable identity, the epitome of male endeavour and virility. And yet Fellini's concern is with the dissolution of identity, the loss of power in masculinity, the subsuming of the (usually artistic) individual in the crowd and chaos. From I Vitelloni on, and especially in the Mastroianni films, the male hero is passive, powerless, a pinball to fate. Many Fellini films burst into confusing crowd activity, the audience lost without a point of identification.
Unlike Mosjoukine's amiable and active 1928 Casanova, Donald Sutherland's is not the stud of reputation, but a pompous, long-winded bore, whose sexual technique is uninventive and monotonous. Like Don Giovanni, another legend who fails to live up to it, Casanova uses sex to ward off death, only to realise that the two are terminally linked. Forever hoping to dine with great men of letters, he is always caught in the straitjacket of his myth, and of history's sexual representations. He is the embodiment of the Enlightenment, a multifaceted Renaissance man - poet, philosopher, chemist, inventor etc - but Fellini profoundly mistrusts Enlightment values. His 18th century is not that of Diderot and Voltaire, but a continuation of Satyricon - a bestial murk where appetite, confusion and cruelty reign. History doesn't change: there is no progress, man is unimprovable - the Enlightenment was wrong.
Casanova, despite his idealistic assertions, is not a being ruled by mind, controlling his destiny, but a puppet tossed about by whim and chance. There is very little light here, much shadow and fog. Casanova's accomplishments are mocked - his poetry is ridiculous; his aphorisms banal. His intellect cannot triumph over the age so he must go mad. And, appropriately, he finds a little happiness in insanity.
Casanova is a very messy film - frustrating, sloppy, continually denying momentum. Scenes often seem not to fit, actors in key moments lack synchronicity. Yet this confusion fits the film's theme, which rejects Casanova's ironical asceticism in favour of life in all its repulsive, topsy-turvy variety. It is a melancholy film, but also very, very funny.
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