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Show Business: The New Fellini: Venice on Ice

7 minute read

“I have made a movie as if in flight, ” says Master Film Maker Federico Fellini, “as if it were a sickness to be got through. ” Few pictures have been as eagerly awaited as Fellini’s Casanova, the director’s most recent bout with “sickness, ” which has lasted nine months, and appeared for a while to be terminal. Now scheduled for pre-Christmas release in the U.S., Casanova managed to survive the theft of two reels of early footage; almost identical alternate work prints were substituted. Then last December Producer Alberto Grimaldi canceled Casanova in mid-filming, blaming Fellini’s extravagance: $7 million had already been spent, roughly two-thirds of the picture shot. Fellini sued and a Roman judge found that the director had not been spendthrift. Production resumed, and last week TIME Correspondent Leo Janos visited the set outside Rome. His report:

Casanova is Fellini’s most ambitious film in years and his first English-language picture. It is also evidently a chilling, worldly departure from Amarcord, last year’s lyrical reminiscence that won Fellini his fourth Academy Award. The new movie is peopled by many of the androgynous grotesques that crowded his fantasy Satyricon (1969). Fellini, 56, has ensured his film a stormy reception in Italy by comparing the 18th century rake-protagonist to the typical modern Italian: “He is all shop front, a public figure striking attitudes … in short, a braggart Fascist.”

The real Casanova—played in the movie by Donald Sutherland—was an intellectual, a gambler and a great Venetian libertine, who seduced and abandoned ladies by the hundreds in his travels across Europe. His Memoirs are usually considered to rank among the classic 18th century autobiographies. Fellini disagrees. He professes to have ripped the pages with rage as he read them. “Unfortunately, I had already signed to do the film,” he says. “No nature, animals, children, trees. The stron-zo [turd] roamed the whole of Europe and it is as if he never moved from bed.”

Shooting Days. Whatever his misgivings, the director has lavished on Casanova extravagant care even by his own high standards. At a cost of $10 million, Fellini has given full vent to his surreal, picaresque vision of Casanova; he has used 500 extras, commissioned 54 sets by volatile, brilliant Designer Danilo Donati, as well as 3,000 costumes and 400 wigs. Nearly 150 shooting days have been spent on the sound stages and back lots of Rome’s Cinecitta studio.

During the final days of filming, Fellini hunched against a Mitchell camera, chewing on the ball of his fist as if it were an apple core. He was watching two young actresses rehearse a scene that was not going well. In Italy, the sound track of a film is dubbed in later, so Fellini can direct like a latter-day D.W. Griffith, instructing as the camera rolls: “Move toward me, Olimpia. Pause. Take a deep breath. Look down at your hands. Bravar Actress Olimpia Carlisi is not acting to the camera, but to her director, her Svengali.

Painted Rats. Later, on another set, the director swung aloft on a crane over an indoor water tank to film an enormous caged seraglio at the edge of a Venice canal. “Motore!” he shouted, and the cameras rolled. The harem was wild with excitement as Casanova’s gondola glided past. Fellini exhorted the girls chosen for the scene to climb their cage like monkeys to get a better view. “Higher, Fernanda!” he roared through a megaphone. “Climb higher and hang those lovely boobs of yours through the bars.” The girl followed instructions, hung on precariously and was rewarded by a blown kiss from “the maestro,” as he is known to his adoring veteran crew. Fellini is a masterly politician, roaming the crowded sound stage to flirt shamelessly with the women and backslap the men. Says he: “I am the captain of a glorious ocean liner. My crew and I work together to make a big joke of the crossing.”

But Fellini’s penchant for detail is no laughing matter. Filming a Venice canal sequence in an outdoor tank, the maestro ordered 200 rats into the water. “Stop!” he shouted after noticing that half the rats were white: “Paint them brown.” His hard-pressed casting staff is often given a sketch of a type of face he wants and ordered off to the back alleys of Rome in search of their prey. For Fellini, the right face is everything. “I chose Sutherland because he is completely alien to the conventional idea of Casanova—the dark-eyed Italian, magnetic, raven locks, dark skin, the classic Latin lover. He reflects my thinking about Casanova, of estrangement.”

Sutherland’s metamorphosis into Casanova begins each day with 3½ hours of makeup application, which supplies him with a Romanesque nose and jutting jaw (Fellini has filmed him almost entirely in profile). These details resemble those in portraits of the real man. But as usual, Fellini goes further. Sutherland’s scalp has been shaved clean for three inches up from the hairline and his eyes lined into a definite slant. The result is a highly stylized, almost Kabuki look that conforms amazingly to a sketch of Casanova drawn by Fellini—who was once a cartoonist —months before he met Sutherland. “Fellini choreographs every move I make,” says Sutherland, who had arrived in Rome with Casanova’s twelve-volume Memoirs. “Don’t read any more,” ordered the director. “I will tell you all you need to know.”

At first, Sutherland bridled at being treated like a puppet. “But why resist?” he concluded. “The man’s a genius.” Says Fellini: “I don’t have problems with actors—they have problems with me. ‘Donaldino’ has done very well.”

Skitter Bed. Tacked to Sutherland’s dressing-room wall is another Fellini cartoon showing the director and his star running for their lives, pointing the finger of blame at each other, while from the clouds, a furious Casanova is brandishing a sword and screaming at them: “Bastards!”

Indeed the film is shorn of any sense of reality, historical or otherwise. Though it is hard to draw many conclusions about a movie that is not yet edited, Casanova will hardly be a picture to recommend to students interested in 18th century Venice. Fellini likes to present psychic rather than objective reality. He uses any material—literary, political, personal—and bends it to his will, makes it part of his powerful fantasies. One cannot imagine his boasting that Casanova is a meticulous biographical creation. On the contrary he says: “There is no historical slant, no ideology. There is nothing but shapes in a landscape, drawn with a bit of perspective but so representative as to be positively freezing, hypnotic.” Perhaps. But the film does heat up to record what may turn out to be some of the wildest sex scenes ever filmed: Casanova and a challenger engaging in a copulatory contest, sharing two whores each in a bed that crashes and skitters right out of the room; Casanova making love to a mechanical doll whose head spins wildly at the climactic moment; the rake’s encounter with a worldly nun who is expert in 39 sexual positions.

Last week Venice glowed eerily under the chill night sky over Cinecitta studios as Fellini filmed the movie’s final scene. On a set as large as a football field (cost: $500,000), the city lay frozen —its Grand Canal solid ice (constructed from sheets of white plastic), the Rialto Bridge sagging under layers of snow. The scene represents the dying Casanova’s final thoughts about the city of his youth. On signal from the director (“Go, Donald”), Casanova moves slowly across the ice, his black cloak fanned open by the night wind. He pauses, kneels down on the ice, his beaked nose like that of a bird of prey.

Suddenly the mechanical doll (Italian Ballerina Leda Lojodice) materializes before him, and the two dance across the ice in a final pirouette to the game of life. Watching the scene unfold, Fellini’s assistant director, Gerald Morin, smiled softly. “So this is what Fellini thinks it all comes down to—a vacuous man dancing with a mechanical doll. Only a middle-aged man growing cynical could make such a statement. How sad. How honest.”

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