8 ½ is one of my favorite movies. Fellini’s use of absurdity, autobiographical themes and chaos thrown into a mixed-up, dream-like state in that film comprise a masterpiece. It could actually be said that all of these elements are also present in Fellini’s lost classic I Clowns (The Clowns), just released on DVD for the first time in the US from Raro Video. That such a highly regarded film by someone like Fellini hasn’t been released on disc in the states previously is amazing, but it’s great to finally have it.
I Clowns begins with Fellini’s recollections of first seeing a circus put up out his bedroom window as a child. We see a full clown act which we assume delights young Fellini, but soon find out that it traumatized him. It is explained how these clowns remind him of the sad characters he would see day to day, such as the town drunk or the flashback-prone war vet. Fellini then stages a documentary (or a documentary of a documentary) to try to find out the truth behind the history of clowns and if “the clown” is dead, per se. We see the crew travel all over Europe to meet with various characters, historians and the great clowns themselves.
I Clowns is nothing short of a brilliant example of a behind the scenes look at a documentary being filmed. In typical Fellini fashion, we know this is just a film but he tricks us into feeling like we are right there seeing all the events unfolding. The way the interview footage (which again we are never sure what is real) is intertwined with the breath-taking circus performances (some including Fellini himself) is very clever and unconventional, but it makes for a fascinating watch. Also joining the festivities is famed Italian composer Nino Rota as the band leader. Even if this was a bare bones disc, it would be a must have for film aficionados. Fortunately this disc, the first put out by the Italian Raro Video’s US distributed label, goes above and beyond with a Criterion-worthy release. Other than the film, which has a beautiful, full screen (this was originally made for TV) 35mm print, the disc includes an exhausting set of bonus features. We have Un Agenzia Matrimoniale, a short film by Fellini as well as a documentary on Fellini’s fascination with the Circus in his films. Lastly, this release also includes a 50 page booklet including original drawings and reflections of the film by Fellini himself. Needless to say, this is a magnificent release by a well respected European company that is finally gracing us Americans with some incredible output.