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  • Writer's pictureVinnie Favale

Everybody Loves "I Clowns"

Everybody love a clown. No one more so than Fellini. There's an excellent piece from Katie l'Amblyoptic on her love for Fellini's documentary "I Clowns". You can read it here.

This is the 50th anniversary of the film's release so what better way than to have Fellini tell us himself about his impactful childhood memories of the day the circus clowns came to Rimini. From Charlotte Chandler's magnificent book "I Fellini";

When I was seven years old, my parents took me to the circus. The clowns really shocked me. I didn’t know if they were animals or ghosts. I didn’t find them funny.

But I did have a strange sensation, a feeling that I was expected there.

That night and for nights afterwards through the years, I dreamed about the circus. During these circus dreams I had the feeling I had found the place where I belonged. There was usually an elephant in those dreams.

I didn’t know yet that my future would be in the circus—the circus of the cinema.

I had two early heroes in my life. One was a heroine, my grandmother. The other was a clown.

The morning after I had been taken to the circus, I saw one of the clowns at the fountain in the square, dressed as he had been the night before. It seemed only natural to me that he would be dressed as a clown. I assumed that he always wore his clown suit.

He was the clown—Pierino. I wasn’t frightened by him. I understood already that he and I were kinsmen under the skin, that he and I were one. I felt an instant affinity with his lack of respectability. There was something about his carefully planned shabbiness that went against my mother’s definition of propriety. He couldn’t go to school dressed like that, and he certainly couldn’t go to church dressed like that.

I have always believed in omens in my life. Probably there are omens in everyone’s life, and they may not recognize them. I did not speak with Pierino, perhaps because I worried that he was a dream or apparition who would disappear if I addressed him directly. I would not have known how to address a clown, anyway. One cannot say “Your Clownness,” yet for me he was beyond royalty. All of this I sensed, because knowing was beyond me at that stage of my life. Years later, I could look at that place by the fountain where he stood, and I could see an aura of that symbol of my whole life, as he stood there like a herald of my future. I was moved by what I perceived, a feeling of ineffable optimism about him. He seemed to be protected by heaven.

When I first began telling my tale of how I ran away with the circus, it was a modest story. As I told the story, each time I remembered myself as being a little older than I was. I aged months in the telling, even years. What grew most was the length of my runaway absence from home. This was the story of my wishes more than of the reality of my experience. After many years of telling my embroidered version of the story, it seemed to me more true than the truth. The exaggeration had become so familiar that it was part of my memory. Then, one day, it was taken away from me by someone who robbed me of that memory, saying that I had lied. There are people who are like that. I have always maintained that if I’m a liar, I’m an honest one.

After school, I had seen some of the circus passing through Rimini, and I followed them. I think I was probably about seven or eight. Everyone was nice to me. They were like a big family. They didn’t try to send me home, probably because they didn’t know where my home was.

I would like to have been with the circus for months, but it was more like an afternoon. During my runaway circus visit, I was observed by a friend of our family’s who retrieved me and dragged me, squirming, home. But before I was taken away, I had made connections that would last all my life. A circus bond had been forged: I had talked with a clown, I had washed a zebra. How many people could make that claim? I suppose it’s possible to find people who have talked with clowns, though I wouldn’t want to have to produce one on short notice. To find someone who has helped give a zebra a bath would require a trip to a zoo. On that special day in my life, the people of the circus allowed me to help give a bath to a sick zebra who seemed very sad. I was told he wasn’t feeling well because someone had fed him a chocolate bar.

From that day on, I never forgot how a zebra felt. When I touched him, it was a tactile sensation that stayed with me. And a wet zebra. I am not a sentimental person, but when I touched him, he touched me—my heart.

The clown I met was the first in a series of many sad clowns I came to know in my lifetime. One’s first clown is special. All the clowns I have ever known took great pride in their work and understood that being funny is serious business. I personally, through my life, have admired totally the person who can make others laugh. That seemed to me both worthwhile and difficult.

That evening, when I was deposited at home, I was scolded for being late, but my mother didn’t seem worried. I hadn’t even been late enough to strongly attract her attention.

I tried to tell her about my adventure, about everything that had befallen me, about how it felt to touch a zebra, but I stopped because she wasn’t listening. She never did listen to me. She was deep in her own world, listening to her own thoughts, perhaps listening to God.

She told me that I had to be punished, so I would know right from wrong and learn my lesson. I was sent to bed without supper. I went to my room, but shortly after I got into bed, the door opened, and my mother entered with a tray of food, a complete dinner. She put it down. She didn’t say anything, and left. So, I learned my lesson.

Any time I ran away with the circus, I could expect to be rewarded with a tray of food in my room. I supposed that it was because she was glad I’d come back. I’ve never needed to use an alarm clock. I just set myself. I have always slept very little and awakened early. As a child, I always awoke before everyone else, and I would lie in bed, afraid to move around and wake the others. I would lie there and try to remember my dreams. As I grew older, I would walk through the silent house, discovering everything about it. Because I was alone with our house, I knew it in a more intimate way than did anyone else in my family. I had the accompanying bruises dealt me in the dark by tables and chairs guarding their nocturnal privacy.

Even very early, I had a sense of drama. My mother had rebuked me for something or other. Something I did, or something I didn’t do, I don’t remember which. I was usually guilty of both malfeasance and nonfeasance. I decided to make her sorry. I knew she would regret scolding me if she thought I was injured.

I took one of her lipsticks, a dark red one, and I smeared most of the tube all over myself, giving, I thought, the appearance of blood. In my mind, she would return home and find me a bloody heap on the floor, and she would be sorry she had been so harsh with me.

I found a good position at the foot of the stairs. I wanted it to look as if I had been injured by my fall. It wasn’t a very comfortable position, and my mother was late. My foot had gone to sleep. I switched positions. It was boring. I couldn’t understand why she was taking so long.

Then I heard a door open. At last! But the footsteps were heavier than my mother’s, and there was no click-clack of her high heels.

My uncle poked me. He said in a matter-of-fact tone, “Get up and go wash your face.”

I was mortified. I was humiliated. I washed my face.

I never again liked that uncle. Neither of us ever referred to the incident, but I knew that both of us remembered it.

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