Clowns have been a recurring obsession for Fellini, by the director’s own admission, and after having been memorable presences in his films (perhaps most notably in La Strada), here they have an entire film devoted to them. Fellini here offers a mixture of biography, documentary and comedy. The film opens with a young boy (meant to be Fellini) first encountering (and being frightened by) clowns at the circus. Fellini’s narration recounts how the clowns reminded him of real characters from the village of his youth, which cues recreations of those people, their actions essentially circus clown routines transposed to world outside the circus tent. Fellini then heads off to Paris in search of clowns and their history.
Fellini incorporates many clowning routines, and how well the gags work will, of course, depend on the individual viewer. But the value here is less that gags than the history and broader meaning of the circus itself. What clowns mean, what we take from them, what the different figures represent – these are the kinds of meditations the film engages in, and there is a great deal of melancholy and poignancy to go along with the broad slapstick. A fascinating piece then, originally done for Italian television.
Those television origins account, then, for the film’s 4:3 ratio, preserved on the disc. And still with those origins, the colours and overall quality of the picture are surprisingly good. The reds, especially, are strong. The blacks are good, too, though the picture can tend towards being a bit murky, with a few shots being more profoundly in shadow than might be intended. The image is sharp, with very little grain, and there is no noticeable edge enhancement.
The mono (in the original Italian) is fine, but is probably where the age of the film is most clearly apparent. Distortion is kept to a minimum, but there is quite audible hiss, which stands out when the track is otherwise silent.
“Una Agenzia Matrimoniale”: (16:36) “A Marriage Agency.” A wry short by Fellini, about a reporter researching a marriage agency, who encounters a woman so desperate to get married, she would have no problem hitching herself to a werewolf.
Fellini’s Circus: (42:28) A very detailed documentary about the film, some of it quite technical, but a serious, intelligent examination of the work, as well as the role of clowns in Fellini’s oeuvre.
“A Journey into the Shadow.” A 50-page booklet by Fellini, filled with stills and illustrations, documenting his thoughts about the movie.
This is another one of those film-school-in-a-box treasures that really takes advantage of the DVD medium. A wonderful release.