Donald Sutherland Stars in Federico Fellini’s Vast and Dizzying Takedown of the Famed Lothario



By 1976, Italian film maestro Federico Fellini had, in the cultural sense, long since become simply “Fellini”.  Though “gargantuan” and even “grotesque” were not always attributes associated with his genius (he initially made his mark with work exactly the opposite, in the closing wave of the Italian neo-realist movement), those are merely two such hyperbolic describers of the man’s output in this time.  A certain kind of bigness, outlandish and over the top, evolved effectively from his longtime circus fixation.  

Notions of performance and helplessness often collide in the work of Fellini, perhaps most famously in 1963’s 8 1/2.  With Casanova, the director extraordinaire not only takes on the later days of the legendary lothario, he makes him his clown.  The 155-minute film is, not unlike his slightly earlier film, Roma, an assortment of prolonged vignettes.  Unlike Roma, however, Casanova has a central character.  Also unlike RomaCasanova is served up (albeit in courses) as a fevered old-world affair… of some sort.

There is a popular theory out there that Fellini hated Casanova, which explains much of the character’s ineptitude and rutterlessness.  Though renowned for his skills in lovemaking, the director opts to shoot the sex scenes from the recipient’s point of view, showcasing our protagonist’s comically contorted orgasm face.  Though perhaps this is something of a progressive depiction, particularly circa 1976, Fellini quite likely did it more as a humiliation tactic of sorts.  Even in Casanova’s peak moments, he still looks ridiculous.

And he does look ridiculous.  Poor Donald Sutherland, said to have been frustrated and adrift in the making of this pricey, warped spectacle, was subjected daily to a three-hour prosthetic make-up job after having the front half of his hair and eyebrows shaved off.  Fellini reportedly rejected far bigger Hollywood stars (Brando, Redford) for the lead in this, his English language debut.  Why comparative newcomer Sutherland?  The Italian director observed that the actor “has the eyes of a masturbator”.  (Hopefully something was lost in translation there).  

Sutherland, for all the hardship (look no further than his deer-in-the-headlights interviews from the time of filming, which can be found on the recent expansive Criterion Fellini box set), remains professional both on and off screen.  This is especially commendable considering that at one point, he is made to perform a long scene while wearing an ornate crown of lit candles. 

Fellini, in his mad cinematic quest to spend money and orchestrate his fevered visions (Why does a giant head emerge from the water at the beginning?  Because he’d dreamt it many years prior, and was now finally able the fabricate it, along with the entire rest of Casanova, in the vast, hallowed stages of Cinecitta.), reduces the world’s most virile lover to a performing monkey.  Casanova’s flair for coital pageantry at orgies and whatnot blinds him to his status as the butt of the joke.  In so, Fellini renders the eerily sexy masculine up-and-comer Sutherland as some kind of washed-up wandering freak in a powdered wig.  The actor of course landed on his feet, though certainly no thanks to this movie.

For all of that, Casanova is no failure.  The film sweeps the viewer up in its overwrought old-world delirium of bawdiness and hollow philosophizing.  “What the heck will be next??”, we can’t help but wonder.  Good odds are always on its variations on some sort of dopey circus-like orgy.  But even then, each is a different flavor and setting, all of them running utterly amok in their cacophonous rowdiness.  Those interested in nudity and sensuality needn’t bother with Casanova, as Fellini refuses any traditional prurient notions in an effort to flag up the ridiculous mechanics of intercourse itself.  More than that, he’s flagging up the burnt-out futility of a man who’s made such performance his calling card- a personal association (acquired in the wake of the sometimes sexy La Dolce Vita) he himself is actively working to beat off.

Many eyes have been on this film’s Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber, as it is one of very few Fellini titles to elude inclusion in Criterion’s previously mentioned very impressive recent box set.  The transfer holds its own with Fellini films of era therein, largely likely due to its meticulous restoration in honor of the director’s centennial, hailing from the same organizations, Cineteca di Bologna, the Cineteca Nazionale, and the Istituto Luce Cinecittà.  The disc includes the intended English language track as well as the Italian track.

Most any vintage extra features of note seem to have wound up on the Criterion set, though KL does come through with a new audio commentary by film critic and historian Nick Pinkerton.  Pinkerton’s wryly academic approach to his commentaries is a perfect fit here.  He aptly refers to Casanova as “an anti-sex burlesque”- an appropriately keen observation among many, many others.  Pinkerton is right at home in the sea of controversy, facts and fables left in the Hefty-bag wake of Fellini’s notoriously painstakingly realized false sea.  “Well prepared” is an understatement for what Pinkerton brings to the table here, expertly timed, and not lacking for opinion co-mingled with the facts and the legends-turned-facts.

Fellini completists, Sutherland fans, and curious fans of auteur-driven visionary indulgences will not want to sleep further on this release.  It is an unforgettable venture into a past that never quite was, erected by dollars and libidos similarly spent.