He was a libertine and intellectual, a seducer, spy and (expelled) seminarian, an adventurer and fugitive from justice.
Now Giacomo Casanova is also funny, self-sacrificing, writhing in the throes of love and _ because this is history Hollywood-style _ a character with a happy ending.
Hot young Australian actor Heath Ledger plays the insatiable lover in big trouble in Lasse Hallstrom's "Casanova," a very clever, often madcap comedy that happily doesn't let the real life facts of the 18th century Venetian get in the way of a very funny story line.
Ledger has been all over the screens at the Venice Film Festival. Last week, his performance as a homosexual cowboy wrestling with his desires in Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain" wowed audiences.
"The real Casanova was a man who had a true understanding of women and had an uncanny ability to get into the minds of women," Hallstrom told a news conference ahead of Saturday night's premiere. "And that's what I wanted to keep about Casanova in this film."
Ledger said he did research his character _ to a point.
"I flipped through his journals and then it was (history) out the window," Ledger said. "We were making it into a romp. We wanted to have a clean slate and just have fun."
For Hallstrom, whose credits include "Cider House Rules" and "Chocolat," making "Casanova" was a welcome chance to return to his roots in TV comedy in Sweden.
"The real Casanova is a wonderful idea for another movie," the director said. "He was such a multitalented man _ writer, musician, priest, philosopher, scientist. We should make that one one day."
One of the few true facts the movie does keep was Casanova's persecution by the Inquisition.
Jeremy Irons plays the Vatican's pompous point man, Bishop Pucci, foiled at every turn by often slapstick plot twists as he tries to get Casanova hanged for heresy and wicked behavior with the ladies.
"It's always great to play a man who sets himself up to be punctured," Irons told reporters.
Some of Casanova's conquests come in convents, prompting inevitable, silly one-liners like "she's not such a novice."
The actors' accents range from proper English to something close to thick New Yorker, but the illogic of all that just blends into all the snappy-paced, steady fun.
What Hallstrom was intent on making authentic was Venice's opulent yet earthy 18th century atmosphere.
He succeeded, thanks in large measure to Venice, which allowed the cast and crew access to just about everywhere they wanted, from St. Mark's Square to palaces never before opened for filming. The entire movie _ interiors, too _ was shot in the lagoon city, whose narrow alleys, bustling fruit markets and water-lapped palaces are still much like the world Giacomo Casanova knew.
"Working in Venice was like a four-month guided tour of the city," Ledger said. "It was like shooting a film inside a museum."
Casanova's life has been ripe for plucking for filmmakers for decades. The festival is showing five films about the seducer, including a restored version of Federico Fellini's 1976 "Casanova" starring Donald Sutherland. Another film, "Casanova '70" featured another legendary lover, Marcello Mastroianni, and Bob Hope had a good time in the 1954 "Casanova's Big Night."
Sutherland was among several hundred guests who had one of the most sought-after tickets in Venice Saturday night _ invitations to a "Casanova" celebration in the city's Ducal Palace.
In the new film, Casanova and Francesca, a liberated woman he falls utterly in love with _ played by Sienna Miller _ soar over Venice in a hot-air balloon. At the party, the cake was being served after soaring over the heads of the guests in a miniature balloon, AP reported.
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