Fellini began the 1970s with a decade’s worth of masterpieces behind him. He had earned multiple international awards, all richly deserved, including three Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film, and rapturous public acclaim that turned his name into an adjective describing the idiosyncratic genius of his cinematic vision. Where, from here, was Fellini to go? The answer he came up with—unsurprising to anyone paying attention to his oeuvre with its grand spectacles and parades and organ-grinder music—was to the circus.

The clowns in I Clowns are literally that. No obvious metaphors or symbolism here, although it’s hard to pin whether the film is fiction, a documentary, a mockumentary, a memoir or some hybrid of all that. Fellini, long preoccupied with the collision of spectacle and the quotidian, indulges his childlike fascination with the circus and its players in all of their costumed, vaudevillian splendor. In that sense, the film’s central subject is Fellini’s own obsession, and it may feel baffling and unengaging to those who don’t share some of the same reverence for that particular slice of subculture. In fact, Fellini appears in the film as a version of himself, further blurring the lines between artifice and reality.

Originally produced for and presented on Italian television in resplendent color, I Clowns (which translates as “The Clowns”) falls into roughly three segments, unevenly engaging. In the first, a young boy awakens to strange sounds as a circus tent is hoisted in the night outside his bedroom window. There’s a sense of suspense and anticipation as the big top rises and the camera pushes into the empty center ring where the festivities will unfold. Circus scenes follow in a collage as clowns bounce off one another in exaggerated pratfalls, cage segments erected piece by piece until a lion is released to pace the ring glaring at the assembled crowd. In voiceover, Fellini himself reveals a childhood fear of clowns and of the whole sordid spectacle of the circus, which casts the production of this film in the light of a therapeutic exercise to explore his demons and demystify his phobias.

A fascinating and clever interlude follows as Fellini describes how various clowns remind him of some of the silly and pompous inhabitants of his hometown, such as a blustering stationmaster (Aristide Caporale) and an imperious fascist official (Dante Cleri). These scenes come closest to reproducing the sense of comic drama present in his earlier films exploring the seedy underbelly of Rome and the provincial charm and desolation of Fellini’s native Rimini, and they also hint at how the exaggerated cruelty and violence of the circus clowns’ antics are reflections and parodies of the darker instincts of cruel and violent men. This is surely why so many children are afraid of clowns in the first place—the blurred line between laughter and suffering—but Fellini drops this line of inquiry after only a handful of scenes.

In its longer middle section, the film becomes a somewhat disjointed travelogue of Fellini leading a film crew to Paris on a mission to record interviews with the last great generation of European clowns. The script girl (Maya Morin) recites background information on each clown directly to the camera even as conversations in multiple languages overlap in a stagey pastiche of cinéma-vérité. The bumbling film crew on camera is clearly not the actual crew making the movie we’re watching, leaving one to wonder whether the melancholy old men being interviewed are actually the legendary clowns they say they are. (All clowns are billed as themselves.) They lament the bygone days of the great circus performers, and there’s an affecting strand of nostalgia and regret in their words, but these scenes are so chaotic and entangled that it’s hard to draw out much sentiment from the brief interviews.

The most Felliniesque segment of I Clowns comes at the end, with a bravura staging of a clown funeral under the big top, Fellini himself directing the ersatz film crew as a kind of benevolent ringmaster. Many of the trademark touches of the great director are present, such as the staging of a ragtag parade, the erection of bizarre and sprawling contraptions and the bumptious melodies of Nino Rota’s score. Leaving behind the fine-grained storytelling and compelling characters of his earlier masterpieces, Fellini in I Clowns goes deeper into exploring detours of personal obsession and imagination, connected less by plot than by association and style. “I close my eyes,” he wrote of his creative process, “and the festival starts.” It was an instinct that would animate many of his subsequent films, which became increasingly personal, and often eschewed linear narrative for an approach closer to visual poetry. In the end, the circus and its clowns feel like stand-ins for cinema itself, where laughter and suffering are united under the same big top, and the ringmaster manipulates our attention from one ring to another where spectacles of memory and obsession unfold, through magic and illusion, before our rapt attention.

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