It's funny, the reaction that films inspire. When "The Mask of Zorro" came out, it was hailed as a fun and sexy swashbuckler. But "Casanova," which strikes me as being very similar in tone, pageantry, and structure, hasn't been as well received. Maybe it's because not as many swashes were buckled in this film about the world's legendary 18th century lover and scoundrel. Maybe it was because two films titled "Casanova" were made the same year, and one of them was for Masterpiece Theater, so how popular could either be? Or just maybe it was because the same year that Heath Ledger was posing as the great seducer and legendary lover of women, he was also bent over Jake Gyllenhaal doing the gay cowboy thing. People can get confused, you know.
But the bottom line here (no pun intended) is that I think "Casanova" hasn't gotten a fair shake from critics or viewers. If you liked the Zorro films, you'll like this one. The Masterpiece Theatre version was a witty, funny, and emotionally charged history that stayed fairly close to the autobiography that inspired it. This "Casanova," though it uses the same frame of the old man writing his memoirs to tell the story in flashback, comes closer to a Shakespearian bedroom farce, with plenty of pretense and misunderstandings, quicker pacing, and just enough action to make that Zorro comparison seem appropriate. It's lighter, less complicated, and more deliberately bouncy than the BBC version. Aside from the stars, it also has something that the BBC version wishes they could have pulled off: the entire film was shot in Venice, the city of Casanova's birth and the site of some of his exploits.
To see the real Venice in every exterior frame is just an unexplainable treat, especially with the city outfitted to look 18th-century retro. The costuming and props are fantastic, and because these are the actual buildings, it's easy to feel transported backwards in time, so that it becomes unnecessary for filmmakers to try to add grain or a wash to the film in order to add age. The picture here--and it looks great in Blu-ray, by the way--is sharp and clear, with bright colors throughout that call to mind the old eye-popping historical epics. It's a beautiful film to watch, and for that we have director Lasse Hallstrom to thank.
And while he received all the acclaim and honors for "Brokeback Mountain," Ledger seems to have more fun doing this film. He gets to run from officials who want to punish him for defiling nuns (Casanova in a nunnery is like a fox in a henhouse), swordfight with men and women, and leap here and there in an attempt to outwit his pursuers. And when a fellow can't keep himself from seducing and making love to just about every woman, there are a lot of pursuers. This particular fictionalized episode from Casanova's life shows only briefly that his mother cheerily abandoned him to pursue an acting career. It's a sanitized version of his background, but it's Disney, so either the moms have to be loving or knocked off so their little ones are motherless. A psychoanalyst would have a field day with this one, reveling in how Casanova must have felt compelled to subconsciously seek out his mother in the bosom of all those women. So many women so willingly give themselves to him and with such unbridled passion that he begins to think that there is no such thing as a virgin.
The action begins in 1753. Already, Casanova is such a legendary figure that the players in St. Mark's Square perform little skits about his bedroom encounters, and he's the subject of puppet theaters all across the city. But no one seems to recognize him (this was, of course, before newspapers and television) until he's caught in the act. So Casanova pretty much speaks softly and carries a big stick throughout the film. Because 127 complaints have been lodged against Casanova, his protector, the Doge (Tim McInnerny) warns that he must marry in order to keep from being permanently expelled from Venice. And so Casanova seeks out a young woman who is purported to be a virgin (the only one in Venice, he surmises). The trouble is, Victoria (Natalie Dormer) is loved from afar by young Giovanni (Charlie Cox), who would fight any man who tried to get in his way. But the trouble with that is that Giovanni is neither a lover nor a fighter, and it takes his sister posing as him in a duel to make that fact clear to Casanova.
Sis has problems of her own. Francesca (Sienna Miller) is secretly a much-published and much-read author who pulls such stunts as posing as a man in order to speak before the local university. But feminist or not, she's the victim of an arranged marriage because otherwise, her financially beleaguered family will lose their house and their status. And so she awaits the arrival of the corpulent "lard king" of Genoa, Paprizzio (Oliver Platt). Platt has almost as much fun as Ledger in this film, reveling in 18th century shenanigans. From the moment he steps off his boat and mistakes Francesca and Giovanni's mother (Lena Olin) for his betrothed, the stage is set for the mismatches and misunderstandings to resolve themselves. But not before the Chief Inquisitor from the church rides into town and tries to clean things up. Jeremy Irons plays the Inquisitor as broadly as the tone of this film,
No scene seems as ripe with "Zorro" action as when the Inquisitor is presiding over the public execution of the fabled lover, or when Casanova passes on his cloak and gentleman's walking stick to another, with this simple advice: "Be the flame, not the moth." Words to live by!
"Casanova" is presented in 1080p High Definition at an aspect ratio of 2.40:1. As I said before, the picture looks great. There's plenty of detail, and not just in close-ups. Even the long shots hold the detail, with a sharpness and full range of colors that makes the city of Venice and the costume pageantry really come to life.
The main soundtrack is English 5.1 uncompressed (48kHz, 16-bit), with additional options in standard 5.1 English, French, and Spanish Dolby Digital. The pure, uncompressed sound is bright and powerful, a fitting complement to the bold visuals. There's plenty of rear-speaker action during action scenes, and the sound washes naturally across the viewing space. Subtitles are in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
The audio commentary by director Hallstrom is quite good. We learn mostly about the ins and outs of trying to film in Venice, where the water table can vary significantly enough to change plenty of shots, and where the film crew horrified locals by bringing horses onto St. Mark's Square ("Anything associated with the land makes them uncomfortable"). Two short features are also quite good, and show plenty of behind-the-scenes footage. One of them is a straight "making of" feature, while the other focuses on costume design.
Now, normally I'm not a fan of the short films by Louie Schwartzberg that Buena Vista has contracted for their Blu-ray series. But the additional footage of Venice shot by Schwartzberg is really welcome. It's a fascinating city that's filmed in an interesting way by the award-winning director, so that you feel as if you're the one taking a gondola ride.
"Casanova" is a fun historical comedy/action film in the manner of "The Mask of Zorro." The script is solid, the actors clearly have fun with it, and the location Venice photography makes you want to phone your travel agent.