Fellini and the Circus: When Life Imitates Art

By Veronica Manson

La Strada is a complete catalogue of my entire mythological world and is also a dangerous view into my inner being which was going through an unprecedented transformation at that time.” This is how Federico Fellini described his beloved movie La Strada, which starred his wife, Giulietta Masina, and the American movie star, Anthony Quinn.

After filming I Vitelloni and La Strada, Fellini turns to one of his most cherished themes (some might say an obsession): the circus and its whimsical, out-of-the-ordinary life. The circus becomes a recurring element in several of his works: after La Strada, circus arts were depicted in I Clowns and Amarcord among others; several ‘circus acts’ even appear as cameos in other films such as La Dolce Vita. It is apparent that after his early works, the Maestro of Italian cinema broke away from neorealism and from there he began to film his fascination with the circus.

Why the circus? It is well known that Fellini, even before becoming a film director – was a gifted caricature artist while the inspiration for these sketches was derived from his own dreams. Many drawings of characters, decor, costumes and set designs were done before or during the shooting of his movies. In Fellini’s long and well-documented collections of sketches and drawings we can find insight into this leit motif of Federico Fellini, further exploring his relationship with cinematic art and the life of the circus.

The circus gives viewers a glimpse into Fellini’s mind and moviemaking, showing what inspired him and why circus arts, acrobats, clowns – and the whimsical fantasy and extravagance surrounding the circus – were, in Fellini’s view, a perfect metaphor for life itself with all its mysteries and magic as well as the decadence of Italian society in the late 1950’s with its pompous yet clownish characters.

When Fellini presented the project for La Strada to film producer Dino de Laurentiis – who ended up financing the film – he said that he “wanted to recount the impressions of a distant 1920s Italy, a secret yet still primitive land inhabited by people wandering about without any fixed destination.” Which is befitting of the historical situation of Italy in the early 1950s: a country undergoing tremendous transformation after coming out of a devastating war and pushing towards a feverish and accelerated industrialisation. The so-called ‘economic boom’ of Italy in those years finds its representation in Fellini’s movies where a long-past, dreamy, magic and vaguely idealised agricultural world is clashing with the new, industrial and modern Italy. The circus becomes a relevant metaphor of this transforming world, where characters juggle and struggle and try to survive because “the show must go on”, where beauty, talent and tragedy go hand in hand.

It is telling that, while filming La Strada, Federico Fellini suffered a severe bout of depression and completed the shooting only after a series of sessions with a psychoanalyst. The ‘circus of life’ proved to be fascinating and exhilarating, yet sad and depressing at the same time, a perfect parallel of art imitating life.

Fellini returned to the circus in another film: I Clowns or The Clowns. Even in this instance, the story is an opportunity to reflect on life and its contradictions. The clowns are not happy characters living in a fantasy world; they are confronted with the difficulties of impoverished life, with an artistic tradition that while not actually dying, is certainly becoming passé. With laughter and foolishness as a way to mask the tragedy of life, once again, circus clowns become a cinematic instrument for Fellini to explore the human condition, especially in a quickly and dramatically changing society.

Federico Fellini’s interest in the circus arts comes from a long tradition of Italian literature and even Opera – suffice to remember the tragedy of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci – but he was also very attentive to and strongly influenced by the films he admired – films by Buster Keaton, Danny Kaye and the great Groucho Marx. For the film The Clowns, Fellini had even asked the great Charlie Chaplin to play a part in the movie. Chaplin declined because of age, but it is telling that film was really meant to be a tribute to the life of the circus.

Throughout his film career, Fellini returned to the circus motif in many of his films. In the iconic La Dolce Vita, which was Fellini’s most recognised film internationally, along with Casanova, there is a cameo circus act in the famous nightclub scene. Again in Amarcord, Fellini gave an important role to one of Italy’s most famous circus owners and directors: Nando Orfei. In every film, from the very first produced with Alberto Lattuada, Variety Lights in 1950, until his last feature, The Voice of the Moon in 1990, quotations or references to the circus and circus surroundings including clowns, are constant and abundant. As Fellini once said in a famous interview “Cinema is a beat-up old car where somebody inside with a camera is shooting a clown moving along outside.

Veronica Manson
Italian Cultural Institute in Singapore

Tullio Kezich, Federico Fellini, The Films, Rizzoli, 2009