Circo: Powerful Docu about Circus Life

“Circo,” a new documentary from Aaron Schock, hits on multiple levels. The director has found a supremely rich topic—a family-run circus on its last legs touring the small towns of Mexico—and taken the time to carefully capture it on screen. The result is a transcendent experience for filmgoers with a feature that has strong elements of social commentary, while also raising some bigger questions about the human condition in general in strange times such as these.

It is also a great circus movie period, often calling to mind circus-related classics, such as Tod Browning’s “Freaks” (1932), Federico Fellini’s “La Strada” (1954), Max Ophuls’ “Lola Montes” (1955), and Robert Bresson’s “Au Hasard Balthazar” (1966).

(Please see our reviews of these films).

“Circo” may not match the stature of those films, but it certainly belongs in the same beloved circus movie family.

Director Schock captures the beautiful yet disturbing magic of the Gran Circo Mexico: the blue big top rises out of the dust, and the town’s children rush to see, in addition to lions and tigers, children of their own age contorting themselves, flying through the air on ropes, walking the tightrope, and clowning around. This circus seems bigger than the real world—but, like the real world, it somehow is barely able to hold itself together–the whole tent could collapse at any moment.

Can such a life be good for the children who must perform there night after night, some of them—especially the boys—pulling off dangerous stunts on a regular basis? This is a question that Ivonne, the mother of most of the children, is constantly asking herself and her husband, Tino.

Unlike Ivonne, Tino comes from generations of “circus blood.”  Tino, the likely inheritor of the Circo Mexico following his father, is uneducated; he’s unable to read and write.  But some of his observations about circus life are startlingly poetic. “The circus forever,” he tells us as a statement of fact. “Through the good and the bad. Always the circus.”

This is the philosophy his parents have taught him, but to which his wife does not subscribe—not for her children. “You have kids to give them everything,” Ivonne argues. “Not for them to give everything to you. And they give us too much.”

Tino and Ivonne fight about this point throughout the film, thus giving “Circo” its central thematic tension. If, as Ivonne insists, Tino and the kids give up the life, which is obviously not working out too well for anyone.  If this happens, it would be the end for Tino’s family of more than a hundred years in the business. And what new life can Tino build for his family given the freefall of the Mexican economy?

He is in the treacherous middle of everything: stuck between a lost past and a murky present, between his growing family with Ivonne and his crumbling family tradition. At one point, Tino precisely likens his life to tightrope walking. (Ivonne, meanwhile, says she feels like a caged animal.)

Schock sets up a compelling contrast between Tino’s predicament and the circumstances of his five-year-old niece, Naydelin, who is just entering the circus world. This spirited girl loves the circus so much that she is resolved to live there separate from her mother, who used to be in the circus but has since settled down.

Although Naydelin is scarily firm about her decision for such a cute, tiny child, her mother has to seriously consider whether it would be best for her daughter to get a proper education in kindergarten, learning to read, write, do arithmetic, and the rest. Does a girl with this level of “circus blood” belong cooped up in a kindergarten?

A highly talented cinematographer, Shock works with editor Mark Becker to present many memorable montage sequences that, while not necessarily furthering the main thrust of the narrative, add so much to the ambience of “Circo.” The filmmakers make this world, especially as seen through the eyes of children, a real place we can almost step into. By the end of the film, we feel that we have been somewhere; we have taken an actual trip with this family and survived something.

This is, after all, what documentary films at their best can do, take an unknown aspect of the real world and make it come alive for us, thus changing our perspective.

The finest sequence of “Circo” follows the kids wandering around the countryside on a rare day off. This is one of the few times we see them playing and exploring like “normal” kids would. When they come upon a deserted mansion and spend time peeking through its windows, one boy poignantly declares, “You don’t believe me, but one day I’ll live in a house like this.” We are reminded of this line later in the film, when Tino muses, “The circus is your house.”

Other striking sequences, some of them quite short but nevertheless powerful, include the unceremonious discarding of a dead llama.  Tino explains of the llama: “It woke up dead, the poor animal.”

Other show Tino’s brother riding his motorcycle in loops in the “Globe of Death,” and one of the boys sitting atop the circus tent like it is the top of the world, then running down it.

Schock gradually casts a dizzying spell on us in “Circo,” which is backed up by a pitch-perfect soundtrack from the band Calexico.

If Terrence Malick were to make a documentary about circus life in Mexico, it might look and feel a whole lot like this.

Credits

A First Run Features release.

Directed by Aaron Schock.

Produced by Jannat Gargi.

Cinematography by Aaron Schock.

Edited by Mark Becker.

Running time: 75 minutes.