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Giacomo to My House

As if to counteract any misconstrued notions audiences might have about his heterosexuality, given his recent highly acclaimed performance as a gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain, Heath Ledger comes out swinging his manhood in Casanova, a delightful period piece that looks as scrumptious and inviting as the actor's lips.

Starring a mixture of newcomers and familiar faces, Lasse Hallström'
(The Shipping News, Chocolat, What's Eating Gilbert Grape) Casanova imagines a confrontation between Giacomo Casanova, the infamous Venetian adventurer, paramour, and writer, and a woman very much his intellectual and physical equal -- a woman he admires and soon adores. Unfortunately for him, proto-feminist and closet writer Francesca Bruni (Sienna Miller) detests everything about Casanova. So the romantic miscreant is forced to don an alter-ego in order for the story to continue -- that is, so he can remain friendly with Francesca, ward off an unseemly suitor who wishes to marry her, and outmaneuver the long arm of the Vatican's inquisitor.

Casanova is a comedy, so deception is par for the course. Naturally, people aren't always whom they seem to be; a mask is enough to disguise one's entire person. Besides playing with the notion that true identity is a slippery affair, the film touches on some interesting scientific and political issues of the day. Hot air balloons astound otherwise learned onlookers. Heresy is a frighteningly punishable offense. The role of women is constricted -- our fictional female intellectual Francesca notwithstanding. Casanova plays with these aspects of 18th century Venetian life without becoming trite or forcing a ridiculous suspension of disbelief. The film loves Venice as much as the women love Casanova. The story by Kimberly Simi and Jeffrey Hatcher is well envisioned and coherently executed, despite its improbable twists and turns.

The colorful characters form an entertaining ensemble as well. Francesca's brother, Giovanni (Charlie Cox), seeks to inherit Casanova's mantle by pining for Victoria (Natalie Dormer), the virgin next door, while also enjoying himself at the local brothel. The pontiff's chief investigator, Bishop Pucci (Jeremy Irons), acts like Inspector Clouseau with a stick up his butt. Rotund lard magnate Paprizzio (Oliver Platt) unwittingly lends his identity to Casanova while seeking a newfangled slimming treatment from him before meeting his betrothed for the first time. Meanwhile, Casanova's servant, Lupo (Omid Djalili), keeps all his master's ruses from totally unraveling.

With its fast pace, witty banter, beautiful scenery, dramatic period music, and aura of sexuality, Casanova is a carefree romp for all ages. So why it's rated R is something of a mystery. The rating's tagline, "some sexual content", doesn't quite ring true; whatever sexual content there is exists mostly within the snappy, innuendo-laced dialog and one scene of heavy panting -- certainly nothing more scintillating than what PG-13 fare dishes up each summer. Perhaps Benedict XVI, the new pope, didn't like all the Vatican-bashing.

On a side note, Casanova makes convincing use of digital effects to create a realistic Venice of three centuries ago. I happened to be in Venice when they were filming a dramatic scene in which Casanova and Francesca are about to be hanged at the gallows in front of a hundred costumed extras. Watching from the sidelines among a hundred other tourists, and standing in a partially flooded Piazza San Marco, I couldn't believe that anyone would be able to pull off making a period piece with so much of the 21st century world just a few feet away -- and certainly within earshot. Yet the 18th century comes alive in this production and the ever-moving camera takes it all in.

Stars: 4 out of 5 stars