I've never really had much of an affinity toward the circus. Sure, I have some hazy, half forgotten memories of going to one as a child. A flash of an elephant, a quick image of a tightrope walker, and of course a fleeting vision of a clown. Still, it never really left much of an impression on me, and I haven't had a desire to go back since. Celebrated Italian filmmaker, Federico Fellini, however, loves the circus. He really loves the circus. Almost all of his films, from '8 ½' to 'Amarcord,' somehow echo the bizarre, hyper-real energy of "The Greatest Show on Earth." While the director is clearly obsessed with every facet of the circus and its world, his specific affections rest with those famous, face-painted outcasts of comedy, those red-nosed, big-footed misfits of humor... the clowns. Equal parts documentary, mockumentary, dreamy remembrance, and fantastical reenactment, 'The Clowns' is a wonderfully unique and utterly strange little film that is somehow both atypically and quintessentially Fellini-esque.
Originally commissioned for Italian television broadcast, the film deals with the director's personal love for clowns and traces his own passion for the art form through interviews and sometimes surreal vignettes. The movie is essentially segmented into two alternating stylistic forms and types of footage. Some material follows Fellini and a fictional documentary crew as they track down veteran clowns who offer some history on the profession. These segments appear to be mostly scripted though some of the interview material is probably genuine. The stories told in these "documentary" sections will often transition into the film's other distinct mode, actual reenactments of famous clown acts. The loose narrative and dueling storytelling forms make for a rather unique viewing experience that simultaneously offers more and less than a traditional documentary would. While the level of creativity and cinematic invention are strong, the actual amount of useful information we get on clowns is a little lacking, with much of the details skimmed over. Some famous performers are briefly highlighted and little bits about the two major types of clowns (the white clown and the auguste) are referenced, but none of it is discussed in depth. Thankfully, the various sequences of clowns doing what clowns do best, more than make up for the lack of traditional substance, and end up providing a more compelling and visceral view of the art form than any simple facts ever could.
Stylistically Fellini is actually a bit restrained here, though compared to most filmmakers a restrained Fellini is still unpredictable. The doc and interview footage is fairly conventional and mostly conforms to the norms of the genre. With that said, the filmmaker does employ some powerful, quiet push-ins and tracking shots to emphasize emotion and mood, and there are some beautifully realized dreamy visualizations of his childhood experiences weaved in early on. The clown performances are where most of the fun is, but surprisingly, the camera activity is still a little subdued. In his other films, Fellini goes out of his way to create a carnival-like atmosphere with his compositions, movements, and editing, evoking the feel of the circus in everyday life. Here, however, he literally is filming the circus, and thus many of his trademark tricks aren't really necessary. There is no need to create an air of chaos and absurdity through form, when what's actually being filmed is already chaotic and absurd. Still, the director offers instances of flash here and there, and even throws in some surreal flourishes. In fact, there are several images and sequences throughout the film that are among the director's most memorable and wonderfully bizarre, including an absolutely gorgeous scene that features two clowns hovering above a stage in an insane asylum while wearing butterfly wings.
Special attention must also go the movie's incredible climax, which blends the documentary and fantasy reenactments together. Focusing on a clown funeral the scene is lavish, garish, crazy, and deliciously absurd, presenting a mesmerizing trip into the foolish and magical. As loud and energetic as the circus fueled memorial is, Fellini actually takes things down a notch for the film's very last sequence. A poignant and mysterious scene that features a pair of clowns performing a trumpet duet under two spotlights on opposite ends of an empty circus ring, the scene aches with pathos and melancholy, serving as a bittersweet elegy to a dying art. As funny and cheery as they usually are, there is something painfully sad lurking just beneath every clown, and here the director exploits that fact to great effect.
Under Fellini's lens, these clowns become more than just silly men in makeup. They become windows into humanity, reflections into our own selves. Early on, there is a series of quick scenes that features Fellini reminiscing about certain "clowns" in his village during his youth. These clowns aren't actual performers with painted faces. Instead, they're just odd, local characters with outlandish but still everyday eccentricities, like a resident dwarf nun. They don't dress up in lavish costumes or aim to entertain, but they are no less absurd or amusing. None of us are. In the end, we're all clowns in a way, and Fellini reveals that simple truth through the distorting but still honest prism of a circus funhouse mirror.
'The Clowns' is an energetic and wholly unique celebration of the circus and all things weird. By injecting himself into the narrative, Fellini creates a personal and heartfelt, but still mostly fantastical documentary. A genre bending and defying picture, the film is admittedly uneven and a little disjointed, but despite some weak elements, the movie absolutely shines when the clowns take center stage. Surprisingly effective and ultimately moving, the lack of cohesion and narrative drive will certainly turn off many viewers, but for big fans of Fellini like me, this is a very worthy and quite different effort from the director that is definitely recommended. Well, that is unless you're afraid of clowns. In that case you may want to get as far away from this movie as humanly possible. I mean seriously, the cover alone is liable to give you nightmares.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Raro Video brings 'The Clowns' to Blu-ray on a BD-50 disc housed in a foldout case that comes inside a cardboard slipcase. After some warnings and logos the disc transitions to a standard menu. A wonderful 50-page booklet with notes and drawings by Fellini related to the film is also included.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. With bold colors and solid detail, this is a seemingly authentic and pleasing visual presentation.
The print is in good shape with only a few tiny specks visible here and there. A light layer of film grain is present throughout. Though some shots can look a little soft, clarity is often good, and all of the bizarre eccentricities of the circus are on full display. Fellini likes to cast his roles with performers who have distinct, unique faces, and all of their expressive and intricate features come through well. Colors are pleasing, with some vivid hues, bringing the wonder and insanity of the circus to life with strong pop. Some of the more documentary style footage can appear a little flat, but many sequences still feature a decent level of dimension. Black levels are mostly consistent and contrast is strong without being blown out.
The circus is a great source for vibrant imagery, and Fellini takes full of advantage of that fact, providing a colorful and imaginative picture. Thankfully, this Blu-ray transfer seems to do an admirable job of preserving the filmmaker's intentions.
The audio is presented in an Italian DTS-HD MA 5.1 track and an Italian DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track, with optional English subtitles. Though perfectly serviceable, the 5.1 track lacks any real semblance of a surround sound mix.
Dialogue is clean and carries a nice, full quality. However, there is some humming and hissing in a few shots that feature on-set recording (most of the film's sound was dubbed in later). As far as I can tell, rear activity of any kind is completely absent on the 5.1 track, and strangely it seems that there isn't any notable center channel presence either, with even dialogue coming from the left and right. With that said, the supposed 5.1 mix does sound slightly more robust with stronger bass than the 2.0 mix. Dynamic range is good, and there is no distortion among the frequencies presenting Nino Rota's fabulous score well.
Though the disc claims to carry a 5.1 and 2.0 mix, for all intents and purposes the surround sound track doesn't seem to feature any true rear or center activity, making its inclusion rather redundant and unnecessary. If you're going to label something 5.1, it's sort of expected that it actually be… well, 5.1. Still, despite that caveat, both audio choices sound pretty good and seem to respectfully present the source material well with decent fidelity.
Raro Video has only included two supplements, but they are of high quality and are well worth your time. Both special features are presented in 1080p with Italian DTS-HD MA 2.0 sound and optional English subtitles.
'The Clowns' is strange hybrid of documentary and fantasy that blends comedy and pathos to form an interesting and entertaining rumination on the circus and all things absurd. The video transfer is good and appears to present an authentic and respectful experience. The audio mix serves the film just fine, but its 5.1 designation is fairly suspect. Though there are only two supplements, both are of high quality. This is a solid disc for a very unique and interesting film that comes recommended, especially for Fellini fans.