The Maestro of the Cinema Circus

By Stéphane Marti

When a circus makes a stop in a city, the big top seems to occupy the world in such an arena of dreams. The circus becomes this concentric circle without limits where everyone finds his or her childhood. Animals seem to speak with the people and the artists can fly over our heads. The circus is one of the last refuges of our enchantment, and the clown the High Priest of that wonderland. The clown expresses in full light the dark side of man. He transcends human stupidity in childlike style because his laugh is absolute. The clown is a circus in the circus.

The first scene of the movie I Clowns (1970) symbolises and condenses the life and the work of Fellini: a child wakes up in the middle of the night and looks out of the window to discover the installation of a circus in his small village. The large tent rising in the obscurity will never leave Fellini. This child stops the night dreams to continue another type of dream, the cinema. The circus was the secret heart of the Maestro’s fantasy from his first drawings in the weekly magazine, Marc’Aurelio (1940), to the last movie (La Voce della Luna, 1990) when the moon learns flying trapeze in the night. Thus the screen of the movie theatre extends to the big top of this remote circus because they are both woven in the same material: the liberty of imagination.

Fellini used to remind of this first determining event of his life when he was seven years old (during the summer 1927): fascinated by the clown Pierino, he left his family for a few days to join a small circus company. Is this moment in his biography true or fictive? That doesn’t matter: Fellini is a ‘saltimbanco’ artist as a modern and transgressive creator. One generation later the enchanted circus ring of his childhood became the famous Cinecittà’s Studio 5 (“Il Teatro di posa 5”). Immersed in this great space the director transforms the set, metamorphosing it into cities (Venice for Il Casanova di Fellini, 1976; Rome for the La Dolce Vita, 1960). As a new Poseidon he changed the air in water (E la Nave va, 1983).

But the highest achievement in this Fellinian fantasy may lie in the fact that the Maestro called every section of the contemporary society into his private circus at Cinecittà: the symbols of the authority (the father and the Italian Duce in Amarcord, 1974); journalists (Marcello in La Dolce Vita); directors and cinema producers (Guido in Otto e Mezzo, 1963); seducers (Casanova, and Cazzone in La Città delle donne, 1980); even a moralist (Il dottor Antonio in Boccaccio 70, 1962) and old stars of the show business (Ginger e Fred, 1986), converge together in the same place to continue a huge clown act.

To understand the affinity Fellini has to the circus, we need to examine his creative way of shooting – for the Maestro, a way of life. Fellini did not simply make his movies with technicians; instead he assembled a ‘troupe’ of artists – screenwriters (Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano, Bernardino Zapponi, Tonino Guerra and Gianfranco Angelucci); actors (Marcello Mastroianni, Giulietta Masina); set designers (Italo Tomassi, Piero Gherardi); a cinematographer (Giuseppe Rotunno); and lastly the musical genius whose career was not confined to the movies, Nino Rota – keeping this strange staff around him as a circus director. Thanks to this long partnership of great artists and strong craftsmen the work of Fellini have entered into our collective memory.

Let us cross into this magic cinema circus to hear Fellini speaking: “the clowns are the ambassadors of my vocation. […] I believe in a cinema which can recreate even the sea in studio. My light is not the one that the sun can give.” Certainly this exhibition represents in world premiere the best access to this extraordinary world.

Stéphane Marti
Fellini Foundation for the Cinema