Federico Fellini's THE CLOWNS is a delightful mockumentary (made long before the term was coined) about a film crew's study of circuses and Fellini's personal search for the spirit of the grand tradition of the circus performer.
A young boy gets out of bed and watches a circus set up camp outside his window. Entering the circus tent, the boy watches a variety of acts and becomes frightened and starts to cry when the clowns pretend to beat and stab each other. In voice-over, the adult Federico Fellini says that the
performers scared him because they reminded him of the many real-life freaks and eccentrics in his town (whom we see in re-created vignettes)--including the local sex-crazed hobo, a midget nun, a mutilated Mussolini disciple, and a crazy old man who acts out battle scenes from war films.
Assisted by a small crew, Fellini decides to make a documentary for Italian TV about the history and current state of the circus clown. They visit an Italian circus and run into Anita Ekberg, who claims to be there shopping for a live panther. The crew then goes to Paris ("where the circus became
an art form") and meet renowned circus historian Tristan Remy, who arranges a gathering of old-time circus clowns who share stories with Fellini. Remy accompanies the crew to the famous Cirque d'Hiver, where Charlie Chaplin's daughter Victoria and her magician boyfriend are auditioning. An attempt
to watch some old 8mm films of veteran circus performers proves disastrous, as the films melt in the projector, and the personal records and memories of the performers themselves are hazy and incomplete. Convinced that the clown and his world is dead forever, Fellini stages a mock funeral inside a
three-ring circus, but it turns into a raucous celebration replete with confetti and streamers. Afterwards, two clowns in an empty big top play mournful trumpet music to each other.
Originally made as a 60-minute special for Italian TV, and then expanded for theatrical release, THE CLOWNS is usually described as being a documentary, but it's actually a kind of "docu-comedy," featuring obviously staged sequences with performers who are working inside the traditional framework
of a documentary. It's filmed in the style of a typical Fellini film, from the surreal, child's POV tracking shot into the circus tent as the wind blows, to the bouncy Nino Rota music and the use of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," to the series of impressionistic vignettes in which Fellini
depicts the cast of eccentric characters who populated his town during his youth (these sequences bear a remarkable visual and thematic resemblance to AMARCORD, made four years later). The people in Fellini's films have often been called "freaks," and THE CLOWNS offers a literal freak show:
Siamese twin embryos in a glass container, a woman who eats live fish, a midget being roasted on a spit, two giant women wrestlers, and the grotesque clowns hitting each other with axes and hammers. Fellini doesn't ridicule these figures, but rather, views them as kindred spirits and celebrates
them as symbols of a more innocent era that's now sadly vanished in a world that has no time for such irreverent silliness. The world has become too cynical and sophisticated, Fellini concludes, and there is no longer room for the pure clown, with his knockabout violence and lowbrow humor. In this
respect, the film is a poignant lament for the passing of a way of life.
Fellini also mocks the documentary form itself by interpolating obviously staged sequences, such as the re-creations of famous circus acts and the amusing scene where he just "happens" to run into Anita Ekberg (shopping for a panther, no less!), who growls and scratches for the camera. He also has
his so-called "crew" constantly appear onscreen, including his "English" cameraman who's shown filming all the action, which means that someone else (the real Italian cinematographer) is shooting him. Though filled with provocative ideas about life and art, the film assiduously eschews any attempt
to be intellectual, typified by the ending, where Fellini mocks his own self-importance: as he's filming a scene, a pretentious journalist asks Fellini, "What message are you trying to give here?" and as Fellini starts to pontificate, buckets of water land on both of their heads. This is the
film's ultimate message: don't think so much and just try to have some fun.
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- Review: Federico Fellini's THE CLOWNS is a delightful mockumentary (made long before the term was coined) about a film crew's study of circuses and Fellini's personal search for the spirit of the grand tradition of the circus performer. A young boy gets out of be… (more)