Starring: Federico Fellini, Anita Ekberg
Director: Federico Fellini
Made in 1970, this engaging pseudo-documentary starts out like a preliminary sketch for Amarcord, that triumphant trip down memory lane that was Fellini’s most critically acclaimed film of the decade. A little sailor-suited boy – the young Fellini – is overcome with excitement and curiosity as the circus arrives in town, and then the film broadens out by a process of association, going from the clowns in the ring to the clowns the boy sees around him in everyday life – argumentative coachmen, an officious station master, sundry drunks and eccentrics – all evoked in earthy, affectionate, colourfully costumed vignettes.
We then cut to the adult Fellini, with his entourage of secretaries and gofers. The famous director decides he wants to take a film crew and seek out the remnants of this once-vital folk art. This involves an evening at a glitzy modern circus (Anita Ekberg pops up, laughing at tiger) and a tour of Paris, the city where the circus first became an art form, and visits to the Cirque d’Hiver and the Medrano, once world-renowned, now fallen on hard times and open only three days a week (a place where – although Fellini doesn’t mention this – Buster Keaton performed in the 1950s). It also entails a fair bit of clowning on the part of Fellini and his crew, as the documentary turns into a wild goose chase, with failing memories, old home movies that stick in projectors and dragonish archivists all conspiring to frustrate them in their quest for the vestiges of a vanishing tradition.
The resulting film is a strange amalgam of fact and fiction – mostly fiction. Although many of the ex-clowns and circus folk they meet are real, their encounters with them appear to be pre-scripted (with post-synched sound in many cases), and Fellini’s film crew are obviously actors, their antics recorded by another off-screen film crew. Like much of Fellini’s later work, I Clowns feels like an elaborate joke, but in this case it’s a joke most viewers will be happy to go along with, largely because you do end up learning a lot about the subject, partly through bits and pieces of lore that get fed into the dialogue, and partly through some colourful recreations of celebrated acts and stunts. Film buffs are conditioned to think of ’70s Fellini as a man well past his prime, but his on-screen presence here gives the lie to that myth – he’s suave, bright, ebullient, vital, and extremely funny. True, the movie conforms to some degree to the criticisms usually levelled at late Fellini – frivolous, self-indulgent, living in the past – but it feels like the work of a man who is full of ideas yet determined not to take himself too seriously.
I Clowns was made for Italian TV (and broadcast in black-and-white), but the only evidence of this is its 4:3 aspect ratio. Otherwise, it’s as visually rich as you would expect from Fellini, and the florid colours, stylised costumes and touches of the grotesque all come across very crisply and cleanly on this attractive HD transfer. It’s accompanied by a equally bright and colourful 42-minute visual essay which looks at the origins of clowns and their place in Italian culture and also makes various points about the film with the aid of graphs and pie charts (for instance, we learn that the editing is exceptionally brisk, with the average shot lasting just six seconds). Altogether, one of the most rewarding yet of Eureka Entertainment’s forays into late Fellini.