The Clowns

DVD of the Week: Fellini’s ‘The Clowns’

The Clowns
Fellini's 'The Clowns' (Raro Video USA)

Made in 1970 for Italian TV, Federico Fellini’s ‘The Clowns’ finds the director fully exploring — and indulging — his fascination with men who dress up in funny clothes and big noses.

The film begins with Fellini remembering a magical night when a circus came to his small town and set up in a vacant lot adjacent to his home. He wanders over in the morning to this new creation and begins watching, leading to a lengthy recreation of a small-town circus performance. But young Fellini is terrified by the clowns. It seems they remind him of other creatures, which leads to a jaunty pictorial of people who are sad yet have a degree of inner strength.

Next comes a segue to a faux documentary film crew investigating the general demise of circuses in Italy and interviewing famous clowns, along with a further exploration of the two archetypes in clowning, “The White Clown” and “Augustus.” Finally we have another lengthy circus act, this one revolving around a mock funeral for one of those archetypes.

A cold watch of the material is intriguing, but not necessarily compelling for non-Fellini acolytes. It’s been many, many years since I’ve watched Fellini classics such as ‘La Strada’ or ‘La Dolce Vita,’ and, frankly, he’s fallen off my cinematic radar. But with this fine new DVD release from Raro Video, I’m feeling compelled to re-watch the man’s work. And much of that has to do with one of the extras on the disk.

Titled ‘Fellini’s Circus,’ it’s a self-described visual essay by film historian Adriano Apra, and it’s simply marvelous. He quotes generously from the film, and then places the clips in the context of Fellini’s overall body of work. He breaks down the shots, from length to perspective, and then explains how the documentary-style footage compares with the more straightforward fictional scenes. It’s all quite fascinating (it runs about 42 minutes), and it gave me renewed appreciation for the film.

Also included is a black-and-white 16-minute short film from early in Fellini’s career (1953), originally included as part of an omnibus. ‘Marriage Agency’ follows a man investigating the phenomenon of agencies that arranged marriages in post-war Italy. He suspects something must be awry, and so proposes that an imaginary friend with a certain disease is looking for a wife, and is quite surprised by what he discovers. It’s nicely handled — there’s a lovely scene where the man is led through the labyrinth hallways of a building to the agency, following a group of children — and it fits the running time perfectly.

Rounding out the package is a very handsome 50-page booklet, richly illustrated with drawings and photos, that includes a lengthy excerpt from Fellini’s book on the subject.

The DVD is well worth a rental for more casual viewers, and definitely will merit a purchase for Fellini-philes.

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