What happens when the world's most infamous seducer meets a woman as quick-witted and brilliantly persuasive as he is? Casanova tells that story.
The time: 1753. The place: Venice, a city seething with sensuality where the renowned playboy Casanova is on the run from the Catholic Church. Papal officials are intent upon punishing him for his sexual dalliances with, it seems, just about every woman in town. And his only out is to marry a virtuous woman—fast. So the fabled rake makes a deal with a man whose daughter is supposedly a virgin (a rare find, it would seem). And he's on the path to that forced matrimonial fate when he meets a woman unlike any he's ever known: Francesca Bruni.
Not only is Ms. Bruni suspicious of Casanova's charms (and unaware of his identity), but she is stirring up trouble by championing the value and contributions of women. She also has her own matrimonial problem: Her parents have arranged her marriage to a rich, fat merchant named Papprizzio ("the lard king of Genoa"), who is sailing to meet his betrothed for the first time.
As if wooing an engaged woman, hiding his identity and dealing with his own amorous fiancée weren't enough, Casanova's life really gets complicated with the arrival of Bishop Pucci, "the Pope's most feared inquisitor." Unlike the spineless local officials, Pucci will stop at nothing to ensure Casanova's exploits come to end—permanently.
In contrast to many (if not most) of the characters in the film who treat Casanova's sexual indiscretions as harmless, consequence-free fun, Francesca suggests his hedonistic pursuits will not result in lasting satisfaction. Early on, Casanova says, "I seek a moment that lasts a lifetime," a philosophy that rules his choices. Francesca, however, understands that true happiness is found only in lifelong commitment. She pines, "Give me a man who is man enough to give himself only to the woman who loves him." She argues that Casanova's lifestyle is born of narcissism: "What he imagines to be love is self love, and all self love is self doubt." Another character reinforces Francesca's message when he tells Casanova, "Your idea of love is sensuality."
Francesca is also an eloquent advocate for the equality of women. She's not content to accept the prevailing chauvinistic mindset that women are flighty, emotional creatures who're incapable of serious thought. Despite her strong views on women's roles, however, Francesca submits to her mother's (and deceased father's) will when it comes to her impending marriage to Papprizzio.
Casanova himself has an occasional insight, such as when he coaches Francesca's younger brother, Giovanni, telling him, "Misery is not attractive." In the end, both Casanova and Francesca are willing to sacrifice their lives to protect one another.
Catholic authorities rightly note that "fornication on a massive scale leads to confusion," but ...
Casanova doesn't treat the Catholic Church with much charity. Bishop Pucci is lampooned as an overzealous attack dog intent upon reforming Venice's loose morals in general and putting a stop to Casanova's womanizing in particular. Pucci's descriptions of Casanova are technically accurate ("Casanova is a vile fornicator who spits on the teachings of the Church"), but he's so full of venom that viewers naturally root for Casanova to escape punishment.
Pucci and his Church are also portrayed as arbitrary and hypocritical. When Francesca asks the priest for a definition of heresy, Pucci tells her that heresy is whatever he wants it to be. And a conversation between two priests implies that a cardinal's mistress is his sister. The Church, by implication, does not treat all sexual sins equally, and it shelters its leaders from the consequences of their actions.
One scene that does take faith seriously shows Francesca in a church praying for the strength to marry someone she hasn't met for the sake of her family's welfare.
A series of vignettes shows Casanova in the beds of perhaps half-a-dozen women, including a married woman and a nun. (Other nuns in the convent call out his name longingly when they see him, implying he's bedded most of them.) One woman crawls underneath a table to try to pleasure him. The scene is played for laughs as he jerks and kicks the table while trying to carry on a conversation. Elsewhere, Giovanni is seen in bed at a bordello with perhaps six prostitutes simultaneously.
Casanova is full of sexual double entendres and sight gags, à la Shakespeare's bawdy comedies. An example: When a woman and an obese man kiss in a gondola, one end of the boat is practically submerged while the other points suggestively into the air. Venetian townspeople repeatedly refer to Casanova's sexual prowess, so much so that he's the star attraction in several innuendo-filled public puppet shows. When Bishop Pucci arrives to arrest him, the priest claims to have testimony from 127 different women. A nun who is threatened with "eternal damnation" for spending one night with Casanova blithely replies, "Seems fair."
There's a fair bit of slapstick violence in Casanova, but no one is ever seriously injured. Casanova flees Venice with his friends in a scene that includes fistfights with the city's police, followed by a saber battle. About the worst that happens is one policeman gets his head knocked into a wooden pole. Another wound-free saber duel pits Casanova against Francesca (though he doesn't know he's fighting a woman until the battle is complete).
Trying to pick a fight, Giovanni slaps Casanova in the face with a glove several times. Two other characters end up in Bishop Pucci's torture chamber. One is stretched out on a rack; we briefly hear the screams of another who's tortured with a white-hot poker (off camera). Both scenes are played as comedy. Casanova and Francesca descend rapidly in a hot-air balloon, landing hard on a cobblestone street.
[Spoiler Warning] Casanova and Francesca are eventually caught and labeled heretics, then sentenced to execution by Bishop Pucci. With the noose around each one's neck, their lives are spared at the last moment in an unexpected way.
Crude or Profane Language
The characters in Casanova take God's name in vain about half-a-dozen times. "H---" and "bastard" are used once each; forms of "d--n" twice. Crude slang for breasts is used once in a nonsexual way.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Characters drink wine in at least three scenes. One smokes a cigarette.
Other Negative Elements
Deception plays a key role in this story. For instance, Casanova assumes several different identities—and lies a lot in the process—in his pursuit of Francesca. He also dupes Papprizzio into renting his apartment. In order to keep Francesca's would-be husband out of the way, Casanova convinces him that he needs to lose weight and proposes an unusual method to accomplish that task: He puts him on a torture rack (with arms and legs bound and stretched out) and smears lard on his chest and (considerable) belly.
Casanova ostensibly contrasts two ways of life: committed love and unbridled lust. But even though our "hero" swears off his amorous ways in favor of a relationship with one woman, the former message still doesn't fully win out in the end. The film's wink-wink, nudge-nudge position on the protagonist's indiscretions has already been too well established.
Casanova is presented as a victorious conqueror, and his promiscuity is never seriously censured. Instead, his illicit experiences are mostly portrayed in a "boys will be boys" manner. Like much of our contemporary culture, the film represents sexual satisfaction as a legitimate end in and of itself. And Bishop Pucci's oft-repeated denunciations of fornication as heresy start to sound like a broken record, making his legitimate warnings easy to ignore.
There are moments that suggest the value of monogamous commitment. But the value of chastity is never really taken seriously. Sexual purity born of religious conviction is derided as something that no one in Venice (or, by extension, our society today) is actually able to attain—a message we're already drowning in. Director Lasse Hallström's latest is, unfortunately, yet another movie glorifying consequence-free promiscuity, and it reinforces a lie our culture has nearly swallowed whole.