Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Fellini's Casanova

What was that about White Elephants?

Dir: Federico Fellini
Viewed From: The Balcony

*Part 4 of a series of reviews on old and random films playing for 2 euros in Brussels

Last week, Sean forwarded me a notice by the Village Voice critic J. Hoberman on the death of his mentor, Many Farber. Farber's approach as a critic basically seemed to be to take down the directors who were full of themselves (the pale pachyderms), and who had replaced the joy and spontaneity of cinema with a monotonous hammering of one or another of their pet themes...er, I mean, important ideas. I haven't read Farber's full take, but after enduring 150 minutes of Fellini's Casanova (yes, that's the full title), an absolute mess of a movie that consists of one elaborate and impressive scene after another in the sake of making one point, I might have an idea of what he is talking about.

The point: the unceasing drive for sex prevents the ability to find true love. And so we learn, early and often, that Casanova's pursuit of various women - nuns, giants, aristocracy, automatons - all, in the end, will leave him bitter and alone. To underscore this point (underscore puts it mildly), we not only need to see Casanova in action - which we see, a lot, in non-erotic and stylized fashion - but we also need to see him in his final miserable years, bleary eyed and miserable, friendless and alone, and incapable in his advanced age of both sex and love.

Reading up on the movie, it seemed that Fellini detested Casanova, and the film was intended as a hatchet job on the man from the beginning. Some notes have suggested that the tone was softened by a dream sequence at the end, in which Casanova finds some happiness, dancing with the 'robot' woman he had met in the court of Norway, but this seems unlikely. After dozens of years with every shape and size of woman, the one whom he thinks back to isn't real? This hardly seems like a man who has come to terms with anything, and I think (or at least hope) that the final shot of Donald Sutherland and the robotic woman dancing was meant as a parting joke, and not as an indication that the he had found salvation.

Wait, what's that you say about Donald Sutherland? Yes, oh yes, should I have mentioned that perhaps the greatest lover in history (Don Juan gets some votes), and certainly the greatest Italian lover in history, is played by Mr. 'Public Radio International,' just two years prior to him donning the sweater vest as America's favorite pot-smoking prof in Animal House? It's true, but with some overdubbed lines, a prosthetic nose, and lots and lots of white powder (for the face!), Sutherland is actually quite good in the role. While hardly the dark and swarthy type that one might associate with an Italian lover, Giancomo Casanova was from the north of Italy (Venice), and nobody of the aristocratic class in eighteenth-century Europe would be caught dead with a tan. Not only looking the part of European nobility (who were quite ugly), Sutherland also has the proper amount of enthusiasm and uninhibited joy for the role, realizing that seduction and sex should be, at it's root, fun. Though he does bear a startling and distracting resemblance to The Black Crowes' Chris Robinson, I was buying it.

But unfortunately Sutherland is forced to do the same things over and over again to get Fellini's point across. It's too bad really, because there are some incredible set pieces here: the opening celebration in Venice should be (if it's not already) a classic of establishing setting and mood; the dueling sex scene (a public contest to see who can have more orgasms) is rendered with such enthusiasm and attention to detail that you believe they really took place all the time; and the scene in the court of Norway, with its raised pianos and drunken orgies, is a technical marvel. There are also some wonderful shots of great period detail, such as the elaborate banquets and costumes, and my favorite scene showing how all the candles are extinguished after an evening concert performance, but nothing to link them together. This is a problem with a lot of episodic plots, but it's even worse when the only bridge between scenes is an intentionally unlikeable and vacuous character.

I won't allow Fellini's Casanova to turn me off the director entirely, but after reading a quote from him explaining one scene, I'm beginning to think Farber's designation may apply. One of the early scenes in the film involves Casanova rowing in the ocean, but an ocean crafted out of black garbage bags taped together. This was done, according to Fellini, to represent the "plasticity" of Casanova's life. Yeah, okay Federico. Somebody on the set should have been reading Orwell.


Sean said...

There's this great little documentary on Fellini called "Federico Fellini: I'm a Big Liar". I caught it again recently on Flix or Fox Movie Channel or something and it has a whole lot of behind the scenes footage from Casanova as well as a great interview with Sutherland. Donald really hated the guy and you get the impression from the interview that he was just in a really bad mood that day or just the thought of that shoot pained him to revisit. It's pretty hilarious.

I think Fellini could be the prototype of the once great director that becomes so self-involved that the camera only captures distorted reflections.

My first attempt at writing about film (or maybe my second) was in high school for my photography class when I decided to write my final paper on Fellini. Bad idea. After I decided on this subject I tried to find all the movies I could form the local video stores around my little burb. I found La Dolce Vita and Satyricon. Trying to tie these two movies together in a way that related to the photography ended up in a pretty muddled paper -- I still wouldn't want to try. One movie was crisp black and white with a lot of sumptuous visual metaphor; the other saturated color with any trace of subtlety forcibly removed. I think I got a C+. It has become hard to think of the guy without acknowledging the 70s and 80s indulgences but those movies from the 50s and 60s are good enough to survive the worst any director could bring.

Padraic said...

Yeah, it's probably relevant that it is Casanova that the jerk standing in line in Annie Hall is discussing with his date, not earlier Fellini.

I saw 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita long before I had any idea how to really watch good movies, so they left me with almost no impression. Probably good to revisit them at some point to remove the bad taste from this one.

I'll definitely be hunting for the documentary. Maybe it's a testament to Sutherland that he seems to be having a blast during the film, even if behind the scenes it was a nightmare.

Sean said...

I would recommend Nights of Cabiria - my personal favorite of his.