The visionary soundtrack for the film symbol of Venice, Carnival and lust tells the story of the deeper bond between Rota and Fellini, and of the unbridled creativity that sparked from their collaboration.
When Il Casanova di Federico Fellini hit the screens in 1976, the Rimini-born already was one of the most successful directors of his generation, having scooped dozens of awards for masterpieces including 8 ½, La Dolce Vita, Le Notti di Cabiria, La Strada and Amarcord, just to name a few.
Two things hadn't however changed from his early days: the dreamlike stance of his films and the bond with Nino Rota, which had begun as early as 1952 with The White Sheik, the first feature film entirely directed by Fellini, following his debut with Alberto Lattauda on Luci del Varietà.
During this time, a span of over 20 years, Fellini and Rota evolved their language hand in hand. Although Rota was already a master at his craft, compared to the younger Fellini, their symbiotic bond made of sounds and visions shifted from the on-the-road-oriented neorealism of early works like Il Bidone, La Strada and I Vitelloni to the dreamlike scenarios of Juliet of the Spirits and Toby Dammit first, and of Il Casanova then.
The score for the 1976 film, which offers Fellini’s own hyperbolical take on Giacomo Casanova’s biography Histoire de ma vie, is indeed the apex of Rota’s forays into the dreamy visions of his friend Federico.
Not everybody knows that at the same time Il Casanova di Federico Fellini was being made, Stanley Kubrick had hired Rota to soundtrack his Barry Lyndon, the other great historical-set blockbuster of the mid-1970s.
However, Kubrick’s grandeur and pragmatic perfectionism were the worst match one could imagine for Rota’s attitude towards composition. It is no surprise to learn that their collaboration lasted three days, following which the American director opted for the use of classical music – hence music of the Seven-Hundreds – to score his historical opus.
Differently, Fellini let Rota free to express himself. As Francesco Lombardi, heir of Nino Rota, suggests in his essay L’uccello magico e la poupée automate: il Casanova elettrico di Nino Rota (2005) the key in the success of the soundtrack lies in the understanding of both the composer and the director that despite the film being set in the Seven-Hundreds, it hadn’t to be handled nor considered like a historical opus. In the movie the line of demarcation between what is history and what is fantasy collapses.
“Kubrick dilated the Seven-hundreds in vast frames. I, instead, did the opposite: I shrunk it in very small environments”, once said Fellini.
The narrative gimmick of directing a costume drama set in a well-determined time frame, on the contrary, let Fellini free to dare, painting one of his most psychologically complex characters. Il Casanova isn’t, in fact, the faithful account of the life of the Venetian tombeur des femmes, but the director’s personal and profound critique of a man that resembles the evolutionary stage of The White Sheik and of those vitelloni he had previously portrayed on the big screen. Casanova not as a historical figure, but as a mask, hence something not-real belonging to the realm of the surreal, of dreams and fantasy.
That is indeed the spirit that moves the soundtrack of Nino Rota who, although composing the music before the film was shot, flawlessly nails the atmospheres Fellini intended to evoke. Equally dreamlike, grotesque and mechanical, the compositions offer an insight into a previously unheard Nino Rota: no longer a juggler of circus and vernacular music, but a fine experimentator of electronic music. Waltzers informed by the legacy of Bach are performed with an electric piano, while the motif of a carillon, typical of the culture of the Seven-Hundreds, becomes all of a sudden mechanical in tracks like 'L’uccello magico' ('The magic bird') and 'La poupée automate' ('The automated doll'), enhancing the film’s restless dialogue between history and fantasy.
The score’s affinity with some of the most experimental and concrete music production of Ennio Morricone – another much-loved composer of the CAM Sugar catalogue – perhaps justifies his fondness for this soundtrack.
“For Il Casanova di Federico Fellini Nino Rota wrote the best music of any of Fellini’s films”, once stated the Maestro, suggesting that the lack of reiterations of formulas previously adopted by Rota were at the roots of the score’s success, because enabling the Oscar-winning musician to free himself from a compositional cul-de-sac.
"Il Casanova di Federico Fellini (Remastered 2023)" soundtrack by Nino Rota. Photo: Stefania Zanetti.
When Alexandre Desplat, another Oscar-winning maestro, recently spoke to us he even suggested that the combination of visions and music Fellini and Rota gave birth to in the film were as wild as those of a 1970s rock opera, something no one would by far associate to both of them.
The film went on to scoop an Oscars for Best Costumes awarded to Danilo Donati, while the music brought Nino Rota a David di Donatello for the Best Soundtrack. And rightly so.
To quote, again, Lombardi, the secret of the success of the score as well as that of the long-lasting partnership between the composer and Fellini lied in the fact that they were “two artistic anarchists [towards the rules of traditional cinema] faithful to each other for 25 years, able to build a collaborative partnership rich in freedom, yet respectful of each other’s role, both sure that this mutual respect was their best surety”.