BluRay/DVD Reviews

I CLOWNS

By • Jun 15th, 2011 •

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Finally! This missing link in Fellini’s creative arc has arrived in a fine transfer by well-respected label Raro Video, who are currently putting out other titles in the US, ranging in genre from Antonioni (I VINTI) to Giallo (THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK). The lovely matte cover is illustrated with what I believe to be one of the director’s drawings – smaller and smaller clowns emerging from the hats of the clowns below them, like a Russian Matryoshka doll.

The intent of the doc is the pursuit of the clowns of Fellini’s youth, and there is even a reconstructed vignette of the director as a child being entranced by the erection of a nearby circus (smartly compared in the accompanying doc as similar in feeling to Winsor McCay’s LITTLE NEMO). Consequently, there is little footage of up-and-coming clowns, rather we visit the clowns of yesteryear, now in decline, sitting in their modest homes, makeup removed, remembering how it used to be, if in fact they consent to be interviewed. Fellini is on camera occasionally during the process, as he must be since this is his quest. The film is vaguely reminiscent of a few of Scorsese’s personal feature docs in which he also appears, and in which style is eschewed in favor of an unobtrusive, grainy-footage-as-it-comes look.

The specter of Chaplin is all over this dreamy doc, just as it is all over Fellini’s work (in particular LIMELIGHT, which oddly, I believe, had more of an influence on the director’s work than did the earlier, silent films). There’s a picture of Chaplin on the wall of one of the elderly clowns who the director tracks down, and there’s even an appearance by Victoria Chaplin (mis-identified as Geraldine on the back cover – these things happen; it even happens on the IMDB plot summary in which she is referred to as ‘Alice’) and her husband Jean Baptiste Thierre, both gifted and dedicated mimes (I had the good fortune to see them perform in Boston a few decades ago, and chatted with her afterwards). The film wouldn’t have been complete without them. Fellini had contemplated approaching Chaplin Sr. to appear in the film, but finally couldn’t summon the courage to make the request.

Supplementals are impressive. An early Fellini short – Un Agenzia Matrimoniale, made in 1953 in 16mm, contains all the essential Fellini nuances, and is as fresh and humorous, and heart-rending, as it must have been upon first release. A Farley Granger-ish reporter investigates a mysterious ‘marriage agency’ and ends up making us feel ethically remiss about how he dupes and disappoints a young, isolated woman in the quest for his story. A great short.

FELLINI’S CIRCUS, described as a visual film essay by Adriano Apra, delves into Fellini’s love of clowns, as well as his gloomy vision of them, by using clips from the film, artifacts from Fellini’s archives, and new footage, including a dilatory collection of graphs prepared specifically for the doc. Commissioned by Raro Video, it’s as convoluted and abstract as the film it is discussing, and I liked it a lot.

Inside the cover is a lovely booklet – ‘A Journey Into the Shadow,’ containing drawings and reflections on the making of I CLOWNS by Fellini. Within its pages we find caricatures of many of his associates, including composer Nino (NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, THE LEOPARD, THE TAMING OF THE SHREW) Rota, his wife, Giulietta (JULIET OF THE SPIRITS, IL BIDONE) Masina as Gelsomina in LA STRADA, and cinematographer Giuseppe (ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS, FELLINI SATYRICON, CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37) Rotunno. Originally a much larger coffee table book accompanied the release of the film. By now that tome must be a collector’s item – a glimpse of it in the Apra doc shows it’s cover wrinkled by time.

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