Originally published on So So Gay on 27 October 2014.
With any major talent, whether found in front of or behind the camera, their name is often reason enough for films to earn a re-release. Critically-acclaimed Italian director Federico Fellini is one such name, and his film I Clowns (The Clowns) is the latest of his works to get an updated release. Made in 1970 for the Italian television station RAI and airing on Christmas Day, it’s a bit of a curio from the legendary director’s filmography.
With faux-documentary elements intermingled with clown sketches, I Clowns is a reasonably entertaining way to spend 90 or so minutes, but ultimately feels like it falls between two stools, leaving the viewer with a sense of confusion as to the purpose and message of the film. Given free rein by RAI to make a film entirely of his choosing, Fellini seems to have taken that particular ball and run with it, indulging his fascination for clowns. Previously criticised by others as a vanity project, it’s easy to see why. That said, like all of the director’s work, it’s an engaging and visually exciting watch, but also erratic and with some distractingly poor dubbing.
By far the most captivating parts of the film are the circus scenes where the clowns and other assorted performers demonstrate their art that, even back in 1970, was a dying form of entertainment. The scripted discussions between the performers and Fellini’s ‘film crew’ tend to be rather dry, both in dialogue and filming style, creating a contrast to the already colourful clown world. Fellini himself appears in the film, leading the documentary side of things, simultaneously trying to explore the clown life and draw parallels between these grotesque goofballs and the human condition. If nothing else, I Clowns is certainly a unique piece of cinema.
In terms of extras on the disc itself, there’s only the one: the essay-film Fellini’s Circus by Italian critic and scholar Adriano Aprà. At almost 45 minutes long, it’s a decent extra that is well worth watching. Aprà is a slightly uncharismatic and monotone narrator, but the information presented and observations drawn – even though often delivered via charts that look borrowed from a 1970s Open University programme – help digest and make sense of one of Fellini’s lesser regarded efforts.
Beyond this, there’s a 36-page booklet, which includes some rather heavy going writing from Sabrina Marques and producer of the Masters of Cinema series, Craig Keller. Titled ‘Let’s talk about I Clowns‘, it’s presented in a rather strange conversational style, like the transcription of a discussion, and unlike Fellini’s Circus is a little arduous thanks to some clunky writing. Clearly Keller enjoys I Clowns immensely, as he in particular waxes lyrical about it. There’s also a curiously patronising ‘Notes on viewing’ section tacked on at the end of the booklet, which is a rather strange inclusion.
Nevertheless, all parties involved are undeniably passionate fans of the movie, and for like-minded people this new release will be warmly welcomed. I Clowns is a sufficiently enjoyable piece of cinema – unless you’re coulrophobic – that holds up well against the passing years, but is probably only truly of interest to Fellini completists and film buffs.
I Clowns is available to buy on dual-format Blu-ray/DVD from Amazon now.