It's hard to believe only 4 other people have reviewed this film, and that it seems to have passed under the radar. This is another Fellini film I hadn't seen in years. I remember that it depressed me the first time I saw it, but then I was much younger, and now my life experience has caught up to that of Fellini's age when he made this picture for television. This time, I was inspired. And I learned a lot. Fellini's non-commercial pictures are often better than his more mainstream, commercial hits! Granted, this film is not entirely consistent in terms of quality; but when it's good, it's really good! One of the important themes of "The Clowns" is that of the White Clown versus the Augusto; the White Clown representing authority, discipline, respectability, moral superiority, parents, what one should do or is supposed to do: the Augusto representing the rebel, the enfant terrible, the spoiled brat, the practical joker, the delinquent, the one who screams, jeers and disrespects. This picture was done in a faux-documentary-style that at first seems to be authentic; gradually it becomes evident that Fellini is satirizing the documentary process. The working lives of several famous 20th century European clowns are explored in this film, many of them being of Italian and French origin, but Spanish, Cuban and English as well. A diverse array of clown makeup, costumes and styles are presented in this film. The clown costumes especially are stunning; they could even be described as Dada-influenced. Selections from Nino Rota's various compositions are appropriately and effectively utilized as a soundtrack.
The most compelling sequences in this picture are those in which Fellini re-creates his conception of the world of the clown in a circus environment, particularly the amazing, extravagant final scene, the "Clown Funeral", which vacillates between faux documentary and outright spectacle. There are a few sad visits to clowns in the twilight of their lives, but other than that atmosphere is quite upbeat. Fellini also examines characters from his hometown, "grotesques", who reminded him of the clowns he saw at the circus in his youth; the maestro reveals that as a boy, he found the clowns to be disturbing, as opposed to funny. Fellini compares the clown to man's "shadow side" (IE in one sequence where high-profile individuals are being qualified by Fellini as clowns, Sigmund Freud is classified as a "White Clown"; Carl Jung is qualified as an "Augusto"). At the end of the picture, perhaps to illustrate a symbolic reconciliation of opposites, the White Clown and the Augusto, both playing horns, leave the circus theatre together. A 42-minute documentary, included as supplemental material, deconstructs "The Clowns" from various technical perspectives; much of the supplemental documentary contains repeats of chapters from the main feature. A booklet is included with the DVD containing Fellini's essays about clowns and his drawings of various colleagues and concepts. Fellini is a great writer as well as a filmmaker, and thus I found this booklet to be educational, entertaining and informative.
Stephen C. Bird, Author of "Hideous Exuberance"