Film director Federico Fellini (as himself) has strong memories of clowns from his childhood, and here he is to share them with us. We are transported back to the time when he was a little boy and woken by noise from outside, so he got up and went to the window. On opening the shutters, he saw a circus big top being raised, which immediately piqued his interest, this mysterious construction emerging before his eyes in the dead of night, so the next day he asked his mother what it was and she offhandedly explained. He could not wait to investigate it, and so by and by he joined the rest of the town to sit under the huge tent and enjoy various speciality acts - but there was something about the clowns that disturbed him.
There's something about clowns that disturbs a lot of people these days, post-under the bed in Poltergeist, post-Stephen King's Pennywise from his mammoth tome It, and more sobering, post-John Wayne Gacy in real life, too. Now a clown doesn't represent carefree, wacky fun on a night out for a treat, nope, they're the stuff of nightmares with their painted faces, baggy clothes and big shoes... well, supposedly, as most people are likely to find them less terrifying, no matter what the meme will tell us, and more boring, their forced and theatrical slapstick far too studied to be spontaneous and thus actively laughter-inducing. But was it ever thus? Was there ever a time when clowns were considered great comedians of their age?
Fellini, on the strength of this, had mixed feelings himself since he portrayed the often elderly funnymen with a mixture of nostalgia and regret that something was passing from the world, a more innocent time when cynicism was not a part of pop culture as much as it was in... 1970?! Now that year is far back in the past, it's interesting to see that already the delights of the circus were palling, no matter that they would be a television fixture for years to come, though not many years, granted. Now they have a reputation of cruelly training animals to do tricks mixed with acrobatics and those clowns which apparently are keeping audiences away, therefore it's little wonder the acrobatics have taken over as the main attraction for those productions that still exist.
But it was those clowns Fellini was fascinated by, and for this feature length television documentary he staged a selection of scenes where he would track down individual exponents of the art, now aged, and interview them (though often they appeared to be sticking to a script), then ask them to perform which we saw in instances peppered throughout the movie, culminating in a half-hour setpiece which operated as a chance to see the talents demonstrate what they had spent their entire lives perfecting, and also an elegy to what Fellini regarded as a dying art, hence the "plot" of the finale took the form of a funeral for one of the last of the clowns as his colleagues and contemporaries paid crazed tribute, complete with pantomime horses and outsized props.
It was fitting that even the real life episodes came across as carefully staged as the scenes under the big top, with special effects unlikely to be able to be used in the live performance incorporated into the acts. This artificial air lent itself to a sense of watching a dream, appropriate for restaging the fuzzy memories of times long gone, but if you never found clowns funny, and it's a form that has lost much of its appeal down the decades, Fellini was not going to convince you otherwise now. Over and over we saw these old men return to their scrapbooks or black and white film reels, as if this was all they had left as a reminder of their lives in showbusiness, which Fellini, often a director preoccupied by the tricks memory plays when we try to conjure it up, would be sympathising with. Yet for all the harkening back to days long gone, and celebrity cameos (Anita Ekberg shows up to claim she wants to buy a big cat, Charlie Chaplin's daughter is a magician's assistant), the entertainment stood or fell by that clowning, and sad to say unless you were really forcing yourself, you wouldn't be laughing. Music by Nino Rota.