Directed By: Federico Fellini
Starring: Riccardo Billi, Federico Fellini, Gigi Reder
Trivia: In its native Italy, this movie was released simultaneously on TV and as a cinema feature
As I’ve stated in the past, I’m not the biggest fan of circus clowns. Apparently, neither was Federico Fellini. In an early scene from his 1970 film The Clowns, the director flashes back to his childhood, recalling the day he first visited the circus. A new and wonderful experience, he enjoyed everything about it with the exception of the clowns. “The clowns didn’t make me laugh”, says the director, who also acts as narrator. “No, they made me cry. Those chalky faces, those enigmatic expressions, those twisted, drunken masks”. Clearly, it was more than the young Fellini could bear.
The Clowns is a documentary that delves into the history of this unusual profession, introducing us to former clowns whose antics entertained children and adults alike for decades. Joined by Tristan Remy, an author who penned the biographies of several famous clowns, Fellini and his crew travel across Europe to talk with as many circus clowns as they can find, most of whom have since retired. Interspersed between these segments are filmed performances showing clowns doing what they do best: making people laugh.
Produced for Italian television (but released theatrically as well), The Clowns isn’t so much a documentary as it is a Fellini documentary. Believe me, there’s a difference (anyone who’s seen Roma will know what I’m talking about). While sitting around a dinner table with several players from a traveling circus, Fellini is introduced to Franco Migliorini, an animal trainer who claims to have received somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 stitches over the course of his career (one of his colleagues quips that they’ve had to drag him from the cage on four different occasions, jokingly adding that they don’t plan to do the same should a fifth occurrence arise). As with most of the movie’s interviews, this dinner sequence has a hint of fantasy about it, which undoubtedly has something to do with the stylish manner in which Fellini presents it (in an almost frantic pace, the camera darts from one performer to another, giving the scene an energy unlike any you’d find in a standard documentary). As he’s shown us many times before, Fellini’s view of the world of circus clowns is a bit skewed, and seasoned with a dash of the fantastic that keeps it from ever feeling 100% genuine. For him, reality is not an absolute, and the entire world is a stage.
Taking into account his initial experience with clowns, we can’t help but wonder why Fellini decided to make this film in the first place. At one point, Tristam Remy asks the director this very question, remarking that the documentary comes a bit late in the game, seeing as circuses have been dying a slow death for years. Was Fellini exorcising the demons of his past, or did he have a genuine interest in the history of this oft-overlooked form of entertainment? The Clowns never answers these questions, though we’re left with the impression that, like many of the great director’s later works, it’s a subject that touched him deeply. The reasons why are unimportant; for Fellini, The Clowns was, much like Amarcord and Roma, a very personal affair.