Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): Movie ***½ DVD: ****
The arc of Federico Fellini's career is endlessly fascinating. He started as something of a neo-realist, and then his films grew in style and scope until they became bizarre, swirl-colored, phantasmagoric spectacles. Then still later, he stepped back again and began making more intimate, personal projects in the last section of his career. Made for television, The Clowns seems to have been a crucial turning point; it came immediately after the overblown Satyricon, and it shows an interesting mix of that film, and the film that would come just a few years later, the wonderful Amarcord. It fits perfectly.
To that end, The Clowns is both garish and intimate. It begins the strain of Fellini's later, more quietly personal films in that he simply decides to explore the idea of clowns, something that has fascinated him his whole life. Indeed, his most frequent leading lady (and wife), Giuletta Masina, is so memorably an onscreen clown, and Fellini once listed three Charlie Chaplin movies as his favorite movies of all time.
The Clowns opens with a very Amarcord-like sequence, in which a young boy, his face forever turned away from the camera -- presumably Fellini -- goes to the circus. He returns home and reflects upon how fearsome (rather than funny) the clowns actually were. The final sequence is more along the lines of phantasmagoria, as several clowns attend the funeral of another clown.
In-between, Fellini himself assembles a film crew and visits the homes of several former clowns, learning a bit about the different clowning styles and how traditions are passed on. The movie shows how even this film crew has its own clownish traits; sometimes these interviews take on a silly quality (and, indeed, they are all staged and not "real"). For some reason, Anita Ekberg -- the luscious star of La Dolce Vita -- turns up here, and Fellini accompanies her to the circus so that she can (perhaps) purchase a big cat for herself.
A great deal of energy has been expended trying to label The Clowns as "minor" Fellini, and the distinction was important at the time, since Fellini had elevated himself to the status of the world's most celebrated and admired filmmaker. (His last name began to appear at the front of his film titles.) But now that that has all blown over, The Clowns can be seen and enjoyed for what it is: a simple, sweet tribute to something that Fellini loved.
While for the most part, he manages to pass on this sense of joy, he doesn't completely succeed. Clowns may have a rich history, and they may sometimes be funny, but nobody talks about the times in which clowns just simply aren't (some people find them rather scary or creepy), and, frankly, there's more than a little of that here. Fortunately, the gorgeous, affectionate sequences outweigh the awkward ones, and The Clowns is overall a success, not to mention a crucial key into an overall understanding of Fellini.
Raro Video has released The Clowns in a gorgeous new DVD, which is mastered in its original television format (1:1.33). It also includes Fellini's 16-minute segment from Love in the City (1953), an ironic, heartbreaking ode to love and marriage. Best of all is a handsome little full-color booklet featuring notes about and artwork from the movie. No Fellini fan should miss this.
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