An oddity in Federico Fellini’s filmography, quasi-documentary The Clowns was made for Italian television but also released theatrically in Europe and the U.S. Part dramatization, part investigation, part memory play, and part phantasmagoria, the movie smothers its informational value with sonic and visual excess, and yet it’s not enough of a dreamlike experience to qualify as a full-on Fellini freakout. Like many of Fellini’s lesser efforts, it seems to reveal a director so preoccupied with his own mythology that he felt obligated to deliver voluptuous style whether or not voluptuous style was suitable to the project at hand. The movie isn’t so overbearing as to induce a screaming headache, but it’s close. And to say that The Clowns should contain fewer scenes of participants telling Fellini he’s wonderful would be an understatement. Anyway, the picture begins with a beautifully rendered scene that the filmmaker pulled from his past. As a little boy watches from his room late at night, a circus tent emerges seemingly from nowhere, since all the workers raising the tent are inside. The next day, the little boy wanders into the tent, encountering a magical world of animals, freaks, and, of course, clowns. Never one to leave well enough alone, Fellini quickly goes over the top at this point, presenting a parade of chalk-faced screamers who seem more monstrous than delightful. And, indeed, as the narration explains, Fellini was scared of clowns when he first saw them.
Eventually, the film drifts into reportage about the history of clowns and the fading popularity of circuses in general. Fellini and his crew speak with ex-clowns, some of whom are still hams and some of whom seem like bitter men full of regret. The filmmakers also track down rare footage of early clowns in action. Overwhelming this valuable material is nonsense. In one staged vignette, Fellini encounters his La Dolce Vita leading lady, Anita Ekberg, while she tries to purchase a jungle cat as a pet. And throughout the picture, Fellini has a sexy blonde assistant stand in front of the camera to read narration like some sort of nonfiction-cinema siren. After being bludgeoned for 90 minutes with these sorts of distractions, as well as histrionic spectacle—including surrealistic performance sequences and a whole lot of World War II imagery—it’s tempting to ask why Fellini bothered exploring a topic that he clearly felt needed bells and whistles in order to sustain interest. Had the director gotten out of his own way and simply presented the world of clowns without adornment, The Clowns might have been less distinctive. Yet it might also have been more memorable and useful.
The Clowns: FUNKY