“The Clown”, from Brazil, is a mere 81 minutes in length – a full ninety if you included the exceptionally long eight minute closing credits – yet for this reviewer, this peculiar bit of tedious whimsy it felt closer to 800 minutes, and this is after watching it twice. It deserves credit, perhaps, for its originality. It would not be too surprising if it came out that its producers pitched the project as a hybrid of the themes of Federico Fellini and Jim Jarmusch; circuses and clowns in all their humor and pathos were a recurring theme for the former director, while its deadpan style and ironic tone recall the latter.
If only “The Clown” were as good as either director’s films at their best, but unfortunately the writer, director, and star, Selton Mello, has only achieved an approximation of their work at its least effective.
What very little there is of a plot has something to do with a threadbare circus, in which a late middle-aged father is the manager, and his 30-something son, Benjamin, is the principle clown. The narrative could be summed up thus: the son wants to leave the circus. We are never told exactly why he wants to leave, much less a clear idea of what else it is he wants to do other than lead a non-circus life. In fact, even the fact that he wants to leave his career as professional clown behind is only slowly, tediously, and obliquely communicated to the audience. It is as if Mello, to compensate for the lack of an interesting story, resorted to an elongated expression of a premise as a means of generating suspense.
Thus, while we are waiting to find out exactly what this film is about, Mello showcases the clown routines, one after the other, none of which are funny, despite the “laughter” they generate from the actors and extras hired to enact provincial Brazilian audiences. There is also much ado about the secondary circus characters and their idiosyncrasies – the fat lady with enormous breasts who needs a new bra, the “exotic” dancer who steals from the employee till – but none of what is presented has any particular point.
The act’s novelty, if it can be called that, is having the mayor and mayoral spouse of every village the circus attends become the subject of some very mild humor. On one occasion a fat mayor invites the performers and crew into his home, where they gorge themselves on the buffet, steal pastries, and invite the mayor’s son to dress up like an angel and take part in one of the circus sketches, which he does, but poorly, flubbing his lines. Yet again, what is the point? Humor? Drama? Pathos? Whimsy?
We come to understand Benjamin’s increasing unease through his perpetually sullen expression, and as the film progresses, some subjective takes that let us know he is experiencing fatigue. But it is never known whether the fatigue is physical or spiritual, or both.
There is a brief hint of romantic yearning with a young lady whom he meets who is not part of the circus, and a brief hint of romantic disappointment, during an interlude when the clown leaves the circus and attempts to join the “normal” world, but no feelings or thoughts are probed with any depth. And it bears mention that characters in the “normal” world are as tediously eccentric as the circus members, but again, for no particular reason.
For example, one police chief, after he has arrested some of the circus over a misunderstanding, delivers a long lecture on how resents the inconvenience the inconvenience this arrest has caused him because his pet cat is due back home from surgery that same day. The explanation of the pet’s medical issues take up about five minutes of screen time, for what amounts to a shaggy cat story.
Overall, in its remiss rhythm and facetious tone,“The Clown” virtually embodies Shakespeare at his most pessimistic via Macbeth: “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day…Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player…a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Nonetheless, this film, currently playing at the Centro Cultural La Moneda, has been an enormous critical and commercial success in Brazil, which has made “The Clown” its official entry for the 2012 Academy Awards.