Federico Fellini’s darkest film cracks through the myth of Giacomo Casanova. As played by Donald Sutherland (M.A.S.H, Don t Look Now), the notorious womanizer is presented as a pitiable and terrifying figure. Casanova craves respect as a scholar and yearns to pursue his interest in alchemy. A sex scandal lands him in prison, but an escape to Paris provides him a new lease of life. Yet every Court in Europe and its attendant patrons and hostesses will only entertain him if he lives up to his reputation in the ritual displays of sex and courtship which form part of the daily life of 18th Century Europe. Fellini had dealt with the theme of the frustration of human desires in La Dolce Vita and 8 ½. In Casanova, the nobleman s search for happiness achieves tragedy, a painful reflection of the human condition. Fellini s Casanova is celebrated for its production values and costume design, for which Danilo Donati won Academy and BAFTA awards, and is made memorable by Nino Rota’s unusual haunting score. This twilight work is one of the greatest films of the 1970s.
The film opens with a carnival in Venice as a prelude to a series of erotic encounters that follow Giacomo Casanova through the cities of 18th century Europe. It is during this festival that a gigantic bust fails to rise from the water, which is taken as a bad omen. Casanova is then introduced as he defiles a fake nun for the pleasure of a rich voyeur; Casanova succeeds in entertaining him, but he is frustrated that the man finds no interest in his alchemical research and further scheming. As he rows back to mainland, Casanova is arrested, judged and imprisoned by the High Court over his famed debauchery.
During his time in prison, Casanova reminisces of his affair with a seamstress and later on one of her servants, Anna Maria, who is bound by frequent fainting and requires constant bloodletting. He eventually consummates his desire to be with Anna Maria. Back in prison, Casanova escapes through the rooftops and exiles himself from Venice, being taken into the Paris court of the Madame d’Urfé. The Madame, an aged woman, enthralled by Casanova’s apparent knowledge of alchemy, wishes to transform her soul into a man’s through ritualistic intercourse with him (an act that requires the presence of a younger woman in the room, so that Casanova can get aroused). Casanova then moves to the court of a hunchback, Du Bois, in between taking charge of a beautiful girl—”the love of [his] life”—Henriette. Du Bois puts on a homosexual performance for his guests that unsettles some of his guests and Casanova is brought to tears as Henriette plays some music. The lovers vow fidelity to each other, but the following morning Henriette has disappeared. Du Bois informs Casanova that an emissary of a far-away court has reclaimed Henriette, and she’s left her bidding that Casanova not attempt following her.
While in London, an aged Casanova is robbed by two women and he attempts suicide by drowning himself in the Thames. A vision of a giantess and two dwarves detracts him, and follows them to a Frost fair, where he arm-wrestles the giantess—a princess—and later pays to watch her bathe with the dwarves. Casanova resumes his travelling the following day. He frequents a deranged party at Lord Talou’s in Rome, where he wins a bet with a stagecoach driver, Righetto, over how many orgasms he can have in one hour. The competition brings him higher acclaim. In Switzerland he falls in love with an alchemist’s daughter, Isabella, who fails to keep up with an appointment to go to Dresden with him; Casanova instead partakes in an orgy within the hostel he’s been stranded. He has a brief, chance encounter with his estranged mother in a theater. He then moves to a court in Württemberg, where his desire to be taken seriously as a writer/inventor are frustrated by the court’s orgiastic, wild nature. It is here that he meets Rosalba, a mechanical doll with whom he shares a dance and later on goes to bed with.
Times goes by and an old Casanova finds himself librarian to Count Waldstein at his castle in Dux. Life at the castle is more than frustrating for Casanova, as he is made eat with other servants and does not get the respect nor the food he claims to deserve. Waldstein’s manservant, Faulkircher, and his lover Vidarol, make him object of mockery and animosity. A portrait of him is hanged and defecated on. Later on, during a fervent poetry recital, a court member fails to suppress a giggle at Casanova, who, humiliated and disappointed, goes back up to his room. The final scene has a weary, bloodshot Casanova cringing in an armchair and recounting a recent dream. In this dream, Casanova is back in Venice. He catches a glimpse of the giant bust seen in the beginning of the film, buried under thick layers of ice in the lagoon. He chases the ghosts of his past lovers, all of whom disappear. An ornate stagecoach beckons him to join its passengers. He finally meets with Rosalba, the mechanical doll, once again. They quietly dance with each other.