I Clowns (1970) dir by Federico Fellini – film review
Starring: Federico Fellini, Riccardo Billi, Tristan Remy.
Release Date: 27 October 2014
Fellini’s classic 1970 film I Clowns is “a ragout of real memories and mockumentary, as Fellini explores a childhood obsession: circus clowns” says IMDB. The excellent Eureka are putting it out for reissue next week, check out Jamie Havlin’s review for us below.
One of Federico Fellini’s less well known works, I Clowns was shot for television although it did premiere at the Venice Film Festival in 1970, before being screened on Italian TV on Christmas night later that same year.
Despite having been out of circulation for some time, a number of Fellini enthusiasts have always regarded it as the equal of his better known films such as La Strada and La Dolce Vita and now it’s the latest in Eureka’s Masters of Cinema Series where it is presented as a special Dual Format (Blu-ray + DVD) edition for the first time in the UK.
The film opens with a young boy – who we can take to be Fellini himself – woken in the night by some loud shouting from workmen. He’s drawn to his window where he sees what could almost be a dream – the circus has rolled into town and is pitching up directly across from his house.
He is taken to see what’s promised to be the ‘the greatest show on earth’ and the spectacle includes a female Hercules, a mermaid who we’re told was caught in the North Sea, knife throwers and a fake fakir. Mostly, though, the evening is dominated by clowns. Their routines, though, frighten the boy as they remind him of some freakish characters from the town where he lives like the old pervert who harasses women and the midget nun who spends her time between a local convent and asylum.
Despite this, the adult – a director played by Fellini himself – becomes determined to investigate the phenomenon of the clown in a documentary that he plans to make. Along with his production team, he sets out to interview famous clowns from the past and the people who still run or are involved in circuses.
Firstly, they visit one in Italy, where they meet one of Fellini’s favourite actresses, Anita Ekberg, who is there shopping for a pet panther. The ‘documentary’, it quickly becomes apparent, is actually a pseudo documentary, partly real but also partly a scripted fantasy with many events clearly being staged.
In fact, it has even been claimed that Fellini here invented what went on to become known as the mockumentary.
Next stop is Paris, where Tristan Remy, a historian of the circus gathers together a group of ageing clowns who swap stories of their heyday; Remy revealing at one point that he’s surprised anybody would want to make the documentary. ‘The circus world no longer exists,’ he explains. ‘The real clowns have all disappeared. The circus no longer has any meaning in today’s society’.
Your enjoyment of I Clowns may to some extent be dependent on your own attitude towards clowns and the circus generally. Fellini himself went through his entire life fascinated and inspired by clowns, viewing them as ‘anti-establishment’ figures, rebels who refused to fit into regular society.
I’ve never, even in childhood, found them very amusing but though the madcap antics on display here failed to make me break into a smile let alone laughter, I did find much to enjoy during the course of the film.
As with anything Fellini ever directed, I Clowns looks stunning and the saturated colour he is known for perfectly suits the circus. Some scenes I’m sure will remain long in my memory such as the night-time training of a recently acquired young tiger and the finale, where the director – convinced by Remy and others that the end of an era has been reached – stages an allegorical ‘clown’ funeral that finishes in a deserted big top.
Here, with the lights dimmed, two clowns each play melancholic trumpet music to one another, a poignant and poetic way for Fellini to say goodbye to a form of entertainment that he believes, once gone, will see the world becoming a poorer place in which to live.
I won’t need to recommend this to Fellini devotees but many others will appreciate seeing this sometimes magical film too, particularly those with an interest in art house cinema.
Extras include Fellini’s Circus, a visual essay on the film by Italian critic Adriano Aprà, new and improved English subtitles and a 36 page booklet featuring new writing about the film, rare archival imagery, and more.
To find out more: www.eurekavideo.co.uk
All words by Jamie Havlin. More from Jamie can be found at his Louder Than War author archive.