‘I Clowns’ or — Fellini Throws A(nother) Party?
Federico Fellini’s ‘I Clowns’ (1970) is a RAI TV “documentary” about the art and grand tradition of clowning, except being a Fellini film it begins all about Fellini himself. It would be a shock if it didn’t.
Split into, roughly, three sections and presented in a playfully faux-vérité style ‘I Clowns’ stats with a romanticised flashback to a circus performance witnessed by the young director before Fellini and his small film crew travel to Paris to interview the last surviving practitioners of this comedic art before, in an obviously heart-felt love letter, the film closes with an idealised, full-on, Fellini-esque clowning spectacular before the lights fade and we are left to contemplate the fact that this movie might actually have been about death all along. Fortunately we are still smiling.
Interestingly, Fellini addresses from the start the hideous and frightening nature of clowns and why they scare and unsettle us (maybe there was a reason this is a dying art-form?). Yet Fellini remained fascinated by these characters and shares that fascination with the audience taking an un-academic look into the various types and lineages of international clowning, the director having as much fun with the medium of TV documentary as a clown with a custard pie.
This is best illustrated when, during the riotous climax, an interviewer asks Fellini what this movie’s message is about when, before the director can answer, two buckets fall on both their heads, the reply to that question interrupted by the out-of-control silliness but also providing the only rational reply — that taking part in the process of the clowns is the non-verbal answer.
For the final 25 minutes or so Fellini pulls out all the stops with an extended sequence which feels like he’s transformed the entire world into a playground, a party for the clowns alone where nothing is off-limits and restraint is a cardinal sin. It’s not only fearlessly life-affirming, colourful and very funny but unexpectedly emotional, tender, compassionate and touching. If this is a last ‘hurrah’ then let it be in capital letters, twenty feet high and bedecked with glitter and streamers.
‘I Clowns’ caught me pleasantly by surprise and somewhat off-guard. I’m a massive Fellini fan already so it was an easy to fall for this but to see him engage with this world with such love and care was genuinely emotional. Life ends, so how much fun can you have along the way? ‘I Clowns’ may have started off about Fellini but I’m not sure he’s ever made a film so fully for and about other people.