by Jef Burnham
Available October 18, 2011 on Blu-ray from RaroVideo U.S.
Film Monthly Home
Short Takes (Archived)
Small Screen Monthly
Behind the Scenes
New on DVD
Books on Film
What's Hot at the Movies This Week
RaroVideo unveils their first-ever Blu-ray release with an HD transfer of Federico Fellini’s made-for-TV movie The Clowns (I Clowns, 1970)— released in March of this year on DVD by Raro. Fellini’s pseudo-documentary about the death of the circus is an overwhelming visual spectacle of cartoonish characters and extravagant set pieces exploding with color. As such, The Clowns is without a doubt the piece most suitable of RaroVideo’s properties for Blu-ray release.
But The Clowns, as a whole, is a very strange picture. Of course, if you’re familiar with Fellini’s work, it probably comes as no surprise whatsoever to hear that one of his films would be considered “strange” by some. But as someone who’s seen a sizable portion of the filmmaker’s oeuvre, I was shocked at just how incredibly strange a work this really is. It’s not so much the content of the piece, though, that stands out to me, for clowns and the circus are an undeniable staple of Fellini’s filmic world (as are actress Anita Ekberg and original scores by Nino Rota, both of which also appear in The Clowns). No, it’s the relative thematic shallowness of the piece that strikes me— at least in relation to his other works.
As a sort of visual eulogy to the circus, and clowns in particular, The Clowns tells a handful of tales about famous clowns of old and laments their disappearance from the world— and that’s about it really. But the two sequences that open the film are incredible. The first is something of a daydream sequence in which Fellini recreates for the viewer his childhood impressions/memories of the circus. The sequence that follows relates the clown archetypes of which he had been frightened as a child to the bizarre characters that populate the Italian villages of his youth. This presentation and contextualization of clowns within Italian society is by far the most poignant passage in the film, even if it isn’t all that deep. Still, it is Fellini at his visual best. These sequences are characterized by such aesthetic precision that it’s only correlative in my mind are the animated films of Sylvain Chomet.
From there the film becomes what I found to be a fairly obviously scripted documentary, although some viewers I understand find it to be more authentic than I. It was, I will note here, indeed scripted. And these documentary-style scenes are interspersed with fiction scenes recreating the clown acts discussed by those being interviewed by Fellini, who often appears onscreen throughout the documentary portion. The grand finale is an incredibly long clown act, which serves as a spectacular funeral to mourn the passing of the clown. This portion of the film may seem excessively long at first, but ultimately you’ll find it’s every bit as impressive as it is lengthy. The experience as a whole is not as rewarding as you would hope on first viewing, even though The Clowns may be formally unique. That being said, for its visual inventiveness alone I can see my viewing experience of The Clowns being significantly enriched with each subsequent viewing.
This release also includes Fellini’s 16-minute short, “Un Agenzia Matrimoniale” (1953), as well as Fellini’s Circus, a fascinating and surprisingly exhaustive visual essay by Fellini expert and film historian, Andre Aprà. “Un Agenzia Matrimoniale” is a humorous film about a reporter’s investigation of a marriage agency he has tasked with finding a wife for his fictional lycanthropic friend. The release also includes a beautiful, 50-page booklet entitled “A Journey into the Shadow: Reflections and Original Drawings on the Making of The Clowns by Federico Fellini.” “A Journey into the Shadow” includes revealing recollections and drawings by Fellini himself, as you may have gathered from the title, and is edited by Andre Aprà.
As for the HD transfer of The Clowns, which is, of course, the reason for the release, it is everything you’d hope for for such a unique film as this by such an important director. Being colorful in almost every conceivable way, The Clowns is certainly deserving of a rich HD transfer. And here RaroVideo offers up as pristine a transfer as I have ever seen in a Blu-ray release. It ranks up there with the best transfers from the Criterion Collection. And that’s seriously impressive when you consider that this is a made-for-television production. What’s more, the audio is presented here in an impressive DTS HD 5.1 Surround mix, as well as DTS HD 2.0 Mono mix. This is one release that Fellini fans in particular won’t want to miss!
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
Got a problem? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org