I Clowns: A 1970 Mockumentary by Federico Fellini
“I Clowns” is a pseudo-documentary film directed in 1970 by the acclaimed Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini. Blending semi-autobiographical recollections with a fictional narrative, the film explores the world of circus clowns. It begins with a childhood memory of Fellini, who is woken in the night by noises and discovers a circus tent being erected nearby. This experience, both fascinating and frightening, particularly due to the clowns, propels Fellini on a journey across Europe to understand and analyze the historical and professional aspects of clowns.
Early Scenes and Personal Trauma
The film’s first segment recounts Fellini’s childhood memory. Woken by strange sounds, the young Fellini peers out of his window to see a large circus tent being raised. His fascination with the circus leads him to explore the tent and attend a performance, which both intrigues and scares him, especially when the clowns appear. These figures remind him of other odd and disturbing characters from his village, like the madman, the exhibitionist, and the war mutilated. This “trauma” ignites Fellini’s quest to delve into the clown’s role.
European Exploration and Disappointment
Fellini’s journey begins with a visit to the circus of Liana, Nando, and Rinaldo Orfei, where he encounters various circus personalities and delves into the nuances of clown performances. However, as the investigation progresses, including a trip to Paris – a city renowned for elevating circus to an art form – the venture faces obstacles. Expert consultations, archival searches, and interviews with aging clowns lead to contradictions and disappointments, ultimately leading Fellini to conclude that the circus and clowns no longer have a place in modern society.
Staging the Clown’s Death
In a metaphorical depiction, the film stages the clown’s “death.” Fellow clowns mourn amidst comic antics, and a mock funeral procession unfolds with clowns building a coffin. As Fellini attempts to explain the film’s message, comedic interruptions prevent a clear answer, symbolizing the unending nature of slapstick humor.
Development and Challenges
The project began after the cancellation of “Love Duets,” a proposed film collaboration with Ingmar Bergman. With no immediate plans, Fellini revisited his experience with the American TV special “Block-notes di un regista.” Rejecting a RAI proposal for a “Pinocchio” miniseries, he decided to create a semi-documentary on clowns, incorporating autobiographical elements and interviews. The production, initially set for five weeks, extended to eleven and included travels across Italy and Paris. The film was initially intended to feature Charlie Chaplin but was altered due to budget constraints and Chaplin’s health.
Despite being intended for television, Fellini shot the film in 35mm color film, maintaining his cinematic style. The shooting began in Anzio on March 23, with locations including Ostia, Paris, and Cinecittà. This project later inspired Fellini for another semi-documentary, “Roma.”
Release and Distribution
“I Clowns” premiered at the 31st Venice Film Festival on August 30. It was first broadcast in black and white on Rai’s Primo Canale on December 25, 1970, followed by a theatrical release in color. In 1977, the film was reissued with “Toby Dammit” under the title “2 Fellini 2,” featuring a dubbed voiceover by Gigi Proietti. A restoration by the Cineteca di Bologna was showcased in the “Il Cinema Ritrovato” retrospective in 2019.
Reception and Critical Acclaim
Critics like Guglielmo Biraghi and Giovanni Grazzini noted the film’s self-referential elements and appreciated its narrative and visual purity. Philip French of The Guardian praised it as a whimsical narrative on the history and nature of a dying art, also noting its thematic foreshadowing of “Amarcord.”