It's probably unfair to compare and contrast two films just because they star the same actor and come out at the same time, but compare and contrast the two latest Heath Ledger movies I shall. Brokeback Mountain is a drama, even a tragedy, about two homosexual lovers that shows how secret affairs can inflame jealousy and destroy families. Casanova is a comedy about one of the most famous heterosexual lovers of all time, and it gleefully mocks the Catholic Church while celebrating the liberating power of brothels and the like. The former film, which shows some of the negative effects of sexual immorality, has provoked outrage among some Christians. But will the latter, also depicting illicit sex, prompt the same response?
Not that outrage would be a proper response. On closer examination, it turns out there is more to Casanova than a celebration of promiscuity—though there isn't less. Giacomo Casanova (Ledger) is a notorious libertine who lives in Venice and, in one early scene, flees a convent full of admiring nuns because officers from the Inquisition have come to arrest him. "Eternal damnation for one night with Casanova," says one official to a novice when he finds evidence that Casanova has been in her chamber. "Seems fair," she shrugs.
Thanks to the intervention of the Doge (Tim McInnerney), or local magistrate, Casanova is spared a hanging, but the Doge tells Casanova he has become increasingly difficult to protect, so he can no longer stay in Venice—unless he marries and becomes a respectable citizen. Oh, and he has to do this before Carnivale, which takes place in just a few days. Casanova rises to the challenge and soon seems to be well on the way to beating this arbitrary deadline; he visits the pious Signor Donato (Stephen Greif) and asks for the hand of his daughter Victoria (Natalie Dormer), and since she is a frustrated virgin who really, really, really wants to have sex—she's so full of pent-up energy, objects shatter in her hands—she persuades her father to allow her to be betrothed to Casanova.
But then, through a complex set of circumstances I won't bother to get into here, Casanova meets Francesca Bruni (Alfie's Sienna Miller), a smart feminist centuries ahead of her time, who mistakes Casanova for another man and tells him how much she loathes men who sleep around and the women who think so little of themselves that they let themselves be used by such men. Casanova is intrigued, even smitten, by her fierce independence, and so he begins to track down whatever information he can find about her, and to woo her in a way that she might like—though his efforts seem to backfire, at least at first.
And so, this is the story of a promiscuous man who falls in love with a woman—precisely because of her insistence that promiscuity is a negative thing—and thus implicitly commits himself to her. Thus, for all its bucking of traditional morality, the film is actually quite conventional, at its narrative core. Occasionally, the characters walk past plays or puppet shows that have bawdy fun with the Casanova legend, and the film itself has that same don't-take-it-too-seriously feel. For the most part, this film supports the idea that a happy ending is one in which a man and a woman come together in a partnership for life.
Things are complicated even further when it is revealed that Francesca herself has a fiancé, though she has never met him; her father arranged the marriage before he died, and now Lord Papprizzio (Oliver Platt), a rotund lard merchant, is coming to Venice to claim his bride and to save the Bruni family from financial distress. Casanova intercepts him at the dock and takes him to his apartment before Papprizzio has had a chance to see Francesca for himself; at first, Papprizzio seems like little more than a fat fool, just another of the figures held up for our ridicule, though Platt soon allows us to see his sympathetic side. What follows is a complicated series of farcical plot twists and assumed and mistaken identities, and it's all fairly entertaining, even if there are some plot holes here and there.
Nevertheless, the movie needs a villain, and director Lasse Hallström—who previously made the pro-abortion film The Cider House Rules and the anti-Lent film Chocolat—finds it in the Church. The fiendish Bishop Pucci (Jeremy Irons), incensed that Casanova has not yet been punished for his sins, arrives in Venice and banishes the Inquisition's ineffectual local officers to a mission for cannibals, after which he embarks on his own plot to arrest and execute Casanova. Pucci is also mighty ticked at the writings of a local "heretic" named Bernardo Guardi (Phil Davies), though the only example of this "heresy" that we ever hear is the belief that women should have the right to full equality with men. Pucci cynically declares heresy is "whatever I say it is," yet his beliefs do seem genuine; when he sees a hot-air balloon rise for the first time, he looks shocked and calls it "witchcraft."
Some Christians will object to this caricature; others, perhaps especially non-Catholics, will find it easy to take in stride a character who clearly embodies the attitudes of another denomination and another era. I must confess I enjoyed Irons's hamminess, and the fact that he never opposes any real heresies made it easier to laugh. (Composer Alexandre Desplat's elegant adaptation of baroque music is also a delight.) On the other hand, the film does want to have its cake and eat it too, presenting permanent commitment as the happy ideal to which couples ought to aspire, while also keeping some randy lothario around simply to show the Christians how wrong they are about sexual propriety. Casanova is just a farce, true, but there's a smugness to the proceedings that leaves a bad aftertaste.Discussion starters
- Casanova describes his philandering as "the perfection of experience." Does this make any sense? How can you "perfect an experience" such as sex if you are with a different partner every time? Is it possible to have a "perfect" experience?
- Casanova says all love is "true" love because, "To say I love falsely is as contradictory as to say I believe falsely." Do you agree with this statement? Is he confusing love and sex? Do love and belief ever change? How do you prevent them from changing? Should you?
- Francesca says that what Casanova calls love "is self-love, and self-love is self-doubt," and she says love does not "grow" with repeated conquests but "wastes away." Do you agree? Is this a sufficient basis on which to oppose promiscuity? What do you make of the fact that the film portrays Francesca (and, implicitly, her beliefs) positively, while also portraying brothels and other forms of promiscuity positively?
- Francesca's mother says, "Marriage is a safe haven … Love is something else." What is the relationship between marriage and love? Would it be wrong for Francesca to marry a man she'd never met, for financial security?
- Francesca asks how Bishop Pucci defines heresy, and he says heresy is "whatever I say it is." What do you think of this portrayal of church leadership? How do you define heresy? When can there be legitimate disagreements?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Casanova is rated R for some sexual content, including a few bed scenes and an act of oral sex performed under a table, though there is no nudity. Much of the story revolves around the Church's opposition to feminism and fornication, with the Church and its Inquisition clearly portrayed as the bad guys. One or two mildly naughty words escape people's lips, too.
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Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 01/05/06
Heath Ledger may be the year's most celebrated "gay cowboy" in Brokeback Mountain, but he's a seducer extraordinaire—of women—in Lasse Hallström's romantic comedy Casanova.
Christian critics find that the film gives mixed signals.
Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) says, "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."
It's also not finding very many good reviews among mainstream critics.