Federico Fellini didn't exactly inflame one with anticipation when he began his $10-million version of Casanova's memoirs with the confession that he found the subject disgusting and the period - the 18th century - uninspiring.
"I was at once smitten with a feeling of dizziness and the mortifying impression that I had made the wrong movie," he told the press. "From the figurative aspect, the 18th century is the most worn-out, exhausted and bloodles of all.
"It was that total refusal, that complete absence of even the slightest affinity with the venture, it was this nausea, this revulsion that suggested the way to make the film. I desperately grabbed hold of this vertigo in a vacuum as the sole point of reference to tell about Casanova and his nonexistent life."
Given the outlook, perhaps one should feel relieved that "Fellini's Casanova," which opens today at the K-B Fine Arts, isn't even more calculatedly alienating. However, it will certainly suffice. An ordeal rather than a pleasure, a spectacle that cries out to be endured rather than enjoyed, "Casanova," may be the perfect consummation of the distasteful conception Fellini had in mind.
One of the reasons "Amarcord" seemed so satisfying was that it appeared to terminate Fellini's rather hypocritical obsession with lust and depravity, which he had begun to rely upon for pictorial stimulation and yet condemn emotionally. This tendency to keep sneaking peeks at the fornicators through fingers locked in prayer made spectacles like "Fellini Satyricon" and "Fellini's Roma" pretty swampy going. A former cartoonist and caricaturist, Fellini might have rendered himself as a bug-eyed spectator at an orgy who kept nervously crossing himself.
Fellini approaches Casanova by falling back on his look-at-that-but-ain't-it-awful obsession with the sins of the flesh. The picture might as well be called "Fellini Satyricon Goes to Venice." And then Paris, and Rome, and Parma, and London, and Dresden and Wurtemburg, all reproduced on the soundstages of Cinecitta through the artful manipulation of Guiseppe Rotunno's lush, moody cinematography and Danilo Donati's opulent costumes and sometimes bezzarely stylized sets, which include such apparitions as an abbey located on a miniature island in a sea of billowing vinyl.
It's astonishing how rapidly the scenario gets stuck in a rut, both technically and crotically. Fellini appears to have only two basic scenes, which are restaged in different locations: strenuous sexual encounters go at each other until their eyeballs go at each other tongues hang out, and dinner party scenes populated by dissipated, cadaverous guests.
For variety there's dinner party where the host acts in a pantomime sex act and another where Casanova is induced to compete in a fornication contest with a young servant.
Fellini has a perfect right to consider Casanova a reprehensible fellow. He probably was in many respects. However, it's extremely difficult to get in the denunciatory daze that Fellini seems to find necessary for depicting Casanova, whose legend has become something of a joke by now, the sort of thing you'd expect a Gene Wilder or Woody Allen to burlesque or satirize.
Ultimately, Fellini seems to do a patronizing flip-flop: His exaggerated outrage turns into exaggerated pity. The Casanova at the fadeout resembles the heros of Fellini's former protege, Lina Wertmuller. He starts as a shameless male chauvinist but ends as a wrecked romantic, the poor deluded slob who can never solve the infinite, ravenous mystery that is Woman.
Fellini's Casanova, played by a severely coiffed, costumed, made-up and manipulated Donald Sutherland, pursues a couple of Impossible Dreams that would be devastatingly funny in a movie with a satiric context: In London he lusts in vain after a childish giantess attended by two dwarfs; in Wurtemburg he has a night of love with a mechanical woman, a life-size wood-and-porcelain toy impersonated with creepy effectiveness by Adele Angela Lodojice.
Fellini's calculations are so peculiarly askew that these potential howlers seem engineered to evoke pathos. Working in English for the first time they may have contributed to the miscalculation. Fellini appears to have trusted to the stilted dialogue to convey some of his ironic, humorous intentions, but it has the boomerang effect of making the firm, rather than the 18th century, sound arch and pompous.
Poor Sutherland, cast in the first place because Fellini thought him fascinatingly faceless - "I was struck by Donald's vagueness, the sense of mystery and indetermination in his face . . . a face with features like water that exist and don't exist an almost urcorporeal presence" - must also bear the brunt of bad dialogue.
His performance might not seem half as embarrasing if we weren't able to hear his familiar light voice struggling with such snappy invective as "You pox-ridden bawds!" or such sweet nothings as "Your laughter is like the laughter on the face of an Etruscan tomb: radiant yet sepulchral." At the start of production Gore Vidal was listed as the dialogue writer. Luckily for Vidal, his name does not appear in the final credis.
The moral of this chronicle of corruption is expressed with stultifying clarity: Fornicate all the time and you'll turn into a machine. Casanova is shown pacing his sexual exertions to a machine, a mechanical bird that moves up and down and flaps its wings when would up. The sex scenes themselves are staged and photographed to make Casanova suggest a fevered piston and his partners so many insatiable (and ultimately disabling) cylinders. At the end he's left a broken-down old bird.
Since few people in the audience are likely to consider themselves as active as Casanova, Fellini's message seems destined to fall on deaf ears, or at least ears somewhat abused by the clumsy dialogue. Fellini frowning at sin always makes one smirk. The disapproval appears to be a way of protecting his flanks, figuratively speaking, from charges of reveling on corruption, a technique that may become second nature to many Catholic artists.
I've never been able to work up the incentive to sample the memoirs of Casanova, a Venetian adventurer, gambler, scholar and man-of-the-world who lived from 1725 to 1978. The work fills 12 volumes, and the standard judgement seems to be that it's extremely valuable as social history and not to be trusted as autobiography.
It would be difficult to adapt such a work adequately under the best of circumstances, and it's possible that the redundant aspects of the movie's sex scenes aren't entirely the fault of Fellini and his co-writer, Bernardino Zapponi. However, Fellini distorted the work of an earlier man-of-the-world, petronius, severely enough to make one doubt if he was the ideal artist to approach Casanova with equanimity or a saving sense of humor.
I have a hunch he may have missed the same kind of satiric opportunity Kubrick missed with his dreary adaptation of Thackeray's "Barry Lyndon." At this late date characters like Barry and Casanova beg to played for comedy: Their rampant male chauvinism and sexual opportunism ought to be manipulated to amuse supposedly enlightened modern audiences in the same ambivalent way Archie Bunker's bigotry does.
Fellini may be inhibited from treating Casanova with lighthearted disdain by getting certain anxieties and vanities of his own mixed up with the protagonist's. By all rights the competition between Casanova and the young servant should end with Casanova suffering a terrible setback. The fact that it doesn't make it an elaborately pointless sequence.
The London episode may reveal more about Fellini than one wants to know. The enigmatic sea monster from "La Dolce Vita" reappears as a beached whale, and we get to go inside the whale yet. What we discover inside is a magic lantern show, devised by Roland Topor, the author of "The Tenant" and writer-director-animator of "The Fantastic Planet." The slides illustrate different aspects of the same obsession: the vagina as some kind of voracious monster. Well, well, you ask youself, is that what's been haunting Fellini all this time? If so, how quaint, and how trite.