“Donald Sutherland’s performance is the gem of this flawed masterpiece”: Fellini's Casanova reviewed in 1977

Novelist Gilbert Adair found Federico Fellini’s Casanova to be an overly loose, alienating spectacle when he reviewed the film for Sight and Sound’s autumn 1977 issue, but had high praise for the ‘extraordinarily physical performance‘ of the late Donald Sutherland as the infamous libertine.

Donald Sutherland as Casanova in Fellini's Casanova (1976)

Fellini’s Casanova is a far from perfect work that no critic’s cant will ever quite recuperate, up to and including the cavalier Panglossism with which the French school in particular is infected, where all is for the best in this best of all possible films and patches that might strike one as boring or stupid are, one is testily corrected, supposed to be boring or stupid. Nor can there be valid excuse in the fact that Casanova was somewhat of a blind date for Fellini, his having signed a contract with the producer Grimaldi without first reading its small print – in this case, the Mémoires themselves, for which, as for the man who wrote them, he subsequently conceived utter loathing.

To start with, the film’s structure is loose to a degree that is astonishing even for a director whose forte has never been plotting. Idly, and with an almost provocative lack of discrimination, Fellini leafs through the libertine’s life, from the early triumphs which earned him his notoriety to his incarceration for heresy, and from the restless exile that bore him to all the courts of Europe to his humiliating decline as a librarian in Dux where, unable to return to his beloved Venice, he would commence the eight volumes of the work on which this film is ‘based’.

But one’s understanding of the eponymous hero, whose features, as inevitable as if they were stamped on a coin, age only in the final scene, is rarely advanced by the choice of episodes. Insufficiently diverting in themselves, neither do they relate organically to each other, seeming little more than morceaux de bravoure, sometimes brilliant, as at the court of Wurtemburg with the Prince’s musicians scaling a wall-length organ (whose likeness to something else nagged at me until I remembered Dr. Terwilliker’s piano in 1953 film The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.), sometimes interchangeable even as to decor and costumes with sequences of the Satyricon. As for the more intimate episodes, why are they all so inconclusive ? What is so mysterious about ‘the mysterious Henriette’? In what way is Dr. Moebius’ daughter Isabella to be distinguished from Giacomo’s other, dispensable conquests? From the two prostitutes in London he has contracted some sort of venereal disease, but is there the hint of a deeper involvement which would more plausibly motivate his attempted suicide?

If such gaps can probably be put down to reediting – a full twenty minutes, it seems, having disappeared between completion and exhibition – there is the related charge that only by exploiting a tired mythology of carnivals and cardinals, by Fellinising poor Casanova as he did Petronius and as he might yet any other defenceless classic (Fellini-Middlemarch ?), could the maestro accommodate his distaste for his material. With the kind of strong visual identity his films possess (which is not to deny the contributions of a veritable court of collaborators), the danger of self-parody is evident. 

Of the later efforts, which we can date with numerical niceness from 8½ (1963), the interest of Amarcord (1973), for all its boulevardier sentimentality, is that the Fellinian spectacle is never gratuitous, its circus metaphor kept well in check by a relatively naturalistic, sawdust-without-tinsel framework of provincial life. Here are no clowns, but some outstandingly grotesque Fascists; no freaks, but the lady tobacconist in whose gargantuan breasts the young hero sinks his head; no parade, but the excursion out to the liner Rex, the townsfolk trotting along the boardwalk with the comic and near-choreographic regularity of brightly coloured mobiles. Casanova, however, is at only one remove from a circus proper, with seven-foot Sandy Allen (employed with, for Fellini, unexpected discretion), the orgasm race, as in some sideshow booth, between Giacomo and a coachman, and the opening carnival, whose masked revellers loom out of the darkness and confusion as if, like tourists, aware of the camera. And in certain sequences it is difficult to shake off the impression of Fellini gilding a void, as it were, garlanding the zero (for him) of his protagonist with the balloons and streamers of what has become an all-purpose imagination.

Yet it is precisely to this void, this lack of feeling and character, that the film owes its peculiar force. As the director himself admits, he has made an epic of alienation, of disgust, a vast mural on which there is portrayed neither Venice nor Casanova nor women, a very costly movie finally about nothing at all. There is, of course, a sentimentality of disgust (Taxi Driver, Schlesinger) no less maudlin than the conventional variety, but Fellini’s misanthropy, his depiction of a gross, almost medieval 18th century, carry more weight, are more completely realised, than anything in the ‘life-giving’ Amarcord.

For instance, Casanova le litterateur pays scant attention to the various Northern countries through which he travelled, and his singlemindedness becomes one of the formal components of the film. All we see of London is a few square feet of waste land and a bridge swathed in studio fog; Paris, the salon of the Marquise d’Urfe; Dresden, the opera house where, as the giant candelabra are snuffed out, Giacomo bears his wizened old mother into a ghostly coach; and of the Serenissima itself, in Fellini’s most splendid single invention, a lagoon of plastic that might have been painted by Tintoretto. The women, too, that Casanova so complacently describes as being all alike in having ruby lips, teeth like pearls and so on, are scarcely more individual on screen, and it is only when they are masked, deformed or in drag that the great lover seems able to overcome his fear of female sexuality. Apart from Topor’s sinister etchings (and the whale that houses them!) the only naked genitalia we get to see are those of Rosalba, the woman who haunts his old man’s dreams, an automaton. Here the misogyny which has marred even the best of Fellini’s work is absolutely integral to his overall conception.

It is certain that for some spectators the film’s power will be considerably undercut by a yawning sense of deja vu, a sense that, however sumptuous and for once justified even in its excesses by the blackness of Fellini’s vision, we have taken one ride too many on his merry-go-round. But it is no mean achievement, especially in the prudently mediocre cinema of the 70s, to give such flesh to one’s fantasies (if fantasies they are), and for that plastic lagoon much may be forgiven him.

At the centre of this dusty caepharnum is Giacomo himself, Fellini’s Casanova, a vain but not unintelligent man suffocating beneath the multiple masks of an ideology of which he is more the valet than the master, and to the end convinced that it is for his literary and philosophical works that he will be remembered. Whether posturing to Nino Rota’s suitably tinny score or copulating with all the feigned energy of a movie jockey on a mechanical horse, Donald Sutherland commands a stunning array of gestures both precise and revealing. He manages to lend tension to a vacuum, and the final, magnificent close-up of his rheumy old eyes, alive nevertheless with a first faint glimmer of self-realisation, is in the context unbearably moving. It is an extraordinarily physical performance and the gem of this flawed masterpiece.

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