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The Clowns (I Clowns) DVD Review

Federico Fellini's The Clowns (I Clowns) movie poster The Clowns (I Clowns)

Original Air Date: December 25, 1970 / Italian Theatrical Release: December 27, 1970 / Running Time: 92 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: Federico Fellini / Writers: Federico Fellini, Bernardino Zapponi

Cast: Clowns: Riccardo Billi, Gigi Reder, Tino Scotti, Valentini, Fanfulla, Merli, Carlo Rizzo, I 4 Colombaioni, Pistoni, I Martana, Giacomo Furia, Dante Maggio, Galliano Sbarra, Peppino Janigro, Carini, Maunsell, Nino Terzo, Osiride Peverello, Nino Vingelli, Sorrentino, Fumagalli, Valdemaro, Luigi Zerbinati, Ettore Bevilacqua; Troupe: Maya Morin, Alvaro Vitali, Lina Alberti, Gasparino; French Clowns: Alex, Pere Loriot, Mais, Bario, Ludo, Nino; Miscellaneous: Pierre Etaix, Annie Fratellini, Gustav Fratellini, Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée, Tristan Remy, Liana Orfei, Renaldo Orfei, Nando Orfei, Franco Migliorini, Anita Ekberg; Uncredited: Federico Fellini, Victoria Chaplin

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Federico Fellini is just about guaranteed to grace any short list of the greatest filmmakers of all-time and yet I wonder how much, if any, of the Italian writer/director's work is familiar to the general public today. I confess that prior to this article, I had only seen three of the more than twenty films Fellini directed. My fourth, this review's subject, unquestionably ranks as one of his most obscure, having accrued fewer than 1,000 user ratings at the most popular movie website on the planet. That explains, and is explained by, the fact that The Clowns (I Clowns) only recently made its American DVD debut.

In the middle of the night, this young boy watches the circus tent erected outside his bedroom window at the beginning of Fellini's "I Clowns." These old Italian clowns get up to some mischief with an oversized mallet.

The Clowns opens in the middle of a night in the unspecified past. A shadowed youth watches as a big top goes up across the street from his home, signifying of course that the circus is town. From here, the movie gives us an old-fashioned show, letting midgets, a strongwoman, and, yes, assorted clowns do their thing to entertain an audience. This extended sequence feels like the Italian counterpart to The Greatest Show on Earth, but you need know little exposure to Fellini to know he's not going to treat us to the conventional
filmed circus/behind-the-scenes drama of Cecil B. DeMille's oft-disputed 1952 Best Picture winner.

The circus acts give way to a film crew led by Mr. Fellini himself putting together a documentary on the circus' glorious past and forgotten figures. With this, the movie dives into the chaos and absurdities which mark many of Fellini's films, including his semi-autobiographical masterwork . By this point, The Clowns isn't as interested in telling a story as in sustaining a mood, as legendary clowns are tracked down for their memories and scrapbooks.

The film-within-the-film's fundamental premise is that the warmly-greeted circus of the past is dead, unable to enrapture an increasingly less innocent populace. That argument still holds meaning today, as the fanfare surrounding such shows has faded into distant memory. But even as the documentary crew sees their fictional film go up in flames (literally burning in the projector at their informal first screening), Clowns proceeds to dramatize its hypothesis, with a prolonged funeral scene of clowns disrespectfully memorializing one of their own. This is followed by an anecdote and musical finale naturally ending with the lights going out on the emptied carnival.

"I Clowns" turns into a "documentary" with director Federico Fellini, presenter Maya Morin (far right), and a fake crew (including Lina Alberti) taking center stage. Swedish actress Anita Ekberg, Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" star, shows up among caged circus tigers in a somewhat random cameo.

I would be lying if I pretended I knew exactly what Fellini was trying to do in this movie. But then, if he were to tell us before his 1993 passing, I'd suspect he have been lying too, because his films seem to be exalted in part because there is no clear, definitive meaning to ascribe to them. For every sequence that is interesting in the mood it creates (like the one that finds Anita Ekberg growling in front of tigers or the one that randomly includes an appearance by Victoria Chaplin, twice identified as Charlie's daughter), there seems to be at least two of circus antics whose appeal is lost on me and I suspect many modern viewers. With almost any other writer/director's name on this, it would be easy to dismiss The Clowns as a nonsensical mess. With Fellini's name, that turns to "It is a nonsensical mess, but why?"

The Clowns was released to Italian theaters near the end of December 1970, four months after its Venice Film Festival debut and just two days after its black and white Christmas Day broadcast on Italian television station RAI. In time for its native fortieth anniversary but almost fourteen years after the format's debut, The Clowns premiered on American DVD last November in a made-to-order DVD-R from a company called Synergy Entertainment. Now just a few months later, this telefilm gets a proper pressed DVD as the first release of Raro Video USA, the North American division of a well-regarded Italian boutique label.

The Clowns (I Clowns) Raro Video DVD cover art -- click to buy DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.33:1 Fullscreen (Original Television Aspect Ratio)
Dolby Mono 2.0 (Italian)
Subtitles: English; Extras Subtitled
Not Closed Captioned
Release Date: March 1, 2011
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $29.98
Cardboard Box with Digipak and Paperback Book

VIDEO and AUDIO

Presumably because it was made for television as well as theaters, The Clowns appears in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Shot on a TV budget, this looks quite a bit older than a 1970 film. The picture lacks sharpness and detail, but it is clean throughout and shows none of the wear and tear its age and origins lead you to expect. Though without context, the dark visuals won't impress many viewers, I suspect a fair amount of restoring and remastering went into this release and not only because the first item in the Special Features list on the back of the case says as much.

The Dolby 2.0 mono soundtrack is presented exclusively in Italian. The English subtitles are player-generated and optional. The package calls the translation new and improved and I only spotted three minor spelling/grammar issues in the subtitles. The audio is pretty dated and a bit distorted. The dubbing (not done by the actors themselves) is also very sloppy, with mouth movements rarely synching with the audio. It may not have gotten as much attention as the picture, but in light of the production, the sound is of adequate quality.

This graph from the visual essay "Fellini's Circus" illustrates the length of shots throughout "I clowns." A reporter (Antonio Cifariello) feels out a potential mate for his werewolf friend in Fellini's "L'amore in città" segment "Marriage Agency" ("Agenzia matrimoniale"). This three-clown psychiatric ward performance makes for a nutty main menu montage.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

There are just two bonus features on the disc, but they are major ones. First up is "Fellini's Circus" (42:20), an all-new "video essay" on the film by historian Adriano Aprà. This is quite the retrospective! Colorful charts deconstruct the film by shot length, distance, and motion. Fellini's own words and illustrations from Renzo Renzi's companion book to the film are shared, as is much information on the production, its subject matter, and its place in Fellini's career.
The amount of attention bestowed on this forgotten movie is both surprising and refreshing, making it easy to accept the excessive film clips played here. The documentary is presented in Italian with English subtitles.

The other on-disc extra is the short Marriage Agency (Agenzia matrimoniale) (16:36), Fellini's contribution to the 1953 anthology film Love in the City (L'amore in città). In it, a reporter (Antonio Cifariello) looks into a marriage agency and tries to find a mate for his werewolf friend. It's a diverting little tale.

The scored main menu lays the English title and listings over looped clips from one scene.

The Clowns is packaged in a cardboard box that's slightly slimmer than a standard DVD keepcase. Inside are two items, each as artistically adorned as the outer case's cover. The DVD is held in a Digipak decorated with photographs of Fellini in clown make-up and some paintings. The other item is A Journey Into the Shadow, a softcover 48-page book consisting of Fellini's reflections on The Clowns, crew member caricatures, and used/unused script excerpts. The book concludes with useful credits and technical information on everything on the disc. There is even a bookmark with the Fratellinis' three clown masks seen in the film.

This lecherous man is one of the local eccentrics compared to circus performers in an inspired early sequence. This old-timer requires a little bit of needling to vividly recall his life in the circus.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Billed as a docu-comedy, The Clowns is a curious film from one of cinema's grandest legends. I'm not sure it will hold much value for anyone but Fellini buffs/completists and circus enthusiasts, but Raro Video has treated it to a nice, loving Region 1 DVD debut with a couple of exceptional extras and a great companion book. While the film sort of falls apart in its second half, one could hardly ask for a better DVD release of it.

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Reviewed March 4, 2011.



Text copyright 2011 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1970 RAI - Radiotelevisione Italiana and 2011 Raro Video. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.