Raro Video // 1970 // 92 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // October 18th, 2011
"Fellini's fascination with the circus and the surreal come to a head in one of his final masterpieces."
Federico Fellini was an Italian director known for his comic dramas (or is that dramatic comedies?). Films like La Dolce Vita and 8 ½ inspired countless filmmakers to take their art to the next level, and Fellini was one of the premier directors when the foreign art house movement took American cinemas by storm. Most of his films have a freewheeling charm that's part sincere attempt to entertain and part smooth hucksterism. It's easy to associate his films with the Big Top, which promises the same kind of entertainment -- drama and comedy -- that's also based on little more than greasepaint and charm. It's not terribly surprising, then, that early in 1970, between his Satyricon and Roma, he made a sort of documentary about the vanishing art of clowns, entitled (appropriately enough) The Clowns. It's the perfect setting for Fellini to perform his usual directorial moves, like making a movie about a movie, and the result is an interesting (if minor) entry in the director's body of work.
Part clown documentary, part travelogue, part history lesson, The Clowns looks at the vanishing art of the clown, which is so much more developed in Europe (especially Italy) than it is in America, where clowns are merely silly. So, we get to see Fellini travelling around Italy finding the masters of the art of clowning, interviewing them, and then recording some of their routines, which means we can add performance art to the list of this film's accomplishments.
There are two primary groups who will be interested in Clowns (Blu-ray). The first group will come for the title. I have no idea how big the market is for documentaries about clowns and clowning, but this is a tremendous resource for those who want to see some of Italy's most famous mid-century clowns doing what they do best. It's also worthwhile because we get to hear what they have to say about their art. Even though it's obvious these performers only come alive on the stage, their less-animated discussions of their art are also valuable for historians and the curious alike. The beauty of the documentary is that it's not afraid to show a number of sides of clowning -- not all the routines are perfect and not all of them achieve their full impact when filmed. Yet, Fellini still gives us a peek into something that we would otherwise not be able to see.
The other group of people -- the one I'm going to guess is larger than clown aficionados -- that will enjoy The Clowns will be attracted by the sheer strength of the director's name. While those looking for another La Strada or 8 ½ will doubtlessly be disappointed, the film adds another layer to our understanding of a complex cinematic auteur. What impressed me about The Clowns as a Fellini project is just how darn Italian it is. Seeing Fellini film after film here in America, where he's become a titan of international cinema sort of dulled my appreciation for just how invested Fellini is in Italian culture. By focusing so minutely on a single aspect of that culture, The Clowns shows the director's commitment to his country. It's also a chance for him to play around, much like his subjects, so of course he makes an appearance on camera and engages in his usual postmodern shenanigans.
When The Clowns first arrived on DVD, fans were ecstatic that this little-seen Fellini film was getting an American release. However, most reviewers noted that the release wasn't as stunningly remastered as they would like. Many of those problems -- though not quite all -- have been addressed with this Blu-ray disc. The AVC-encoded transfer has an impressive amount of detail, and the print from which it was made is surprisingly free of damage. Color saturation is spot on, but there's something about the image that can look a little over-processed. It's nothing in particular (like edge-enhancement or excessive DNR) that I can point my finger to, but the transfer gives the impression that it could be better. For audio we get a pair of Italian DTS-HD tracks. One is mono, the other 5.1. The 5.1 track is a total waste, with no real surround use and little in the way of directionality or atmosphere. In either case, we're dealing with forty-year-old location sound on a television documentary. The audio doesn't have the body or clarity we expect from contemporary sources, though it's still very listenable.
The disc itself houses a pair of extras. The first is a short film that Fellini made for an anthology; it's a fictional take on marriage and comedy. The second is the more substantial of the two, a 42-minute "visual essay" on The Clowns that discusses its style and history while comparing it to other artifacts from the period (like archival photos of clowns). Finally, this release includes a long booklet with information from Fellini himself about the genesis of the project and how he envisioned it. In many ways fans of Fellini will appreciate this booklet and the "visual essay" more than the film itself.
The Clowns is a very minor entry into the director's canon, and it's hard to trust a "documentary" from a filmmaker as interested as Fellini is in blurring the line between fact and fiction. A rental is probably best for the curious before deciding to plunk down the cash for this release.
The Clowns is a fascinating peek into the mind of an internationally beloved filmmaker and his passion for clowns. Yes, that sounds a bit odd, and Fellini must have known he was making an oddity. Fans of the director should give the film (and especially the extras) at least a rental. Those who bought the previous DVD should seriously consider an upgrade for the improved audiovisual presentation of this disc.
Fellini and his The Clowns are not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2011 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Raro Video
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Italian)
* DTS HD 2.0 Mono (Italian)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 1970
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Short