Circo, Aaron Schock’s unvarnished look at a family-run Mexican circus, begins with two quick shots that structure the entire film. First, a string of unlighted bulbs captured from high atop a tent tinkle in the morning breeze until the scene dissolves in a lens flare caused by the rising sun. The next shot abruptly brings us down to earth: laundry on a clothesline casts shadows onto the side of the same big top.
Like the two-ring Gran Circo Mexico it profiles, the documentary offers two attractions at once: a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a struggling circus and a portrait of a family in crisis.
Ringmaster Tino Ponce, grandson of a legendary circus impresario, tries desperately to keep Gran Circo Mexico in business and his family intact, even as his father hoards the show’s meager profits, and his brother and wife threaten to leave the big top for a “settled” life. Tino dreams of his children carrying on the family tradition, and of revitalizing the circus so that they can book shows in cities, instead of the small towns where Circo Mexico stays for just one or two days before moving on, in the grueling schedule documented in Circo.
Neither family nor professional crisis is resolved by the end of the film, though a DVD follow-up lets us know that both circus and family have endured.
For a film about a circus, Circo devotes a remarkably small amount of time to performances. In very brief sequences, Tino tames the circus’s sole lion, his brother Tacho rides a motorcycle in “The Spectacular Globe of Death”, one of his sons performs mid-air acrobatics, and his daughter demonstrates a series of contortionist moves.
Schock is much more generous with footage showing the family pitching and striking tents, packing and unpacking gear, tending to the animals, selling tickets, rehearsing, and driving, driving, driving. The calculus is clear: every minute in the ring costs at least an hour of drudgery. Is it worth it?
Tino thinks so. He never loses his love of the circus, though he acknowledges the tribulations. He makes Circo Mexico sound, in fact, like his marriage to Ivonne, a woman who gave up her “settled” life for him. “Through the good and the bad” he insists, “Always the circus”, or “the circus is tough and beautiful”. Regarding those all too fleeting moments in the spotlight: when his children wax rebellious and complain that they are “just employees”, he reminds them that “When the show starts, we become artists of the circus”. When you see them perform, you understand Tino’s sentiment.
Ivonne isn’t so sure. She complains that Tino’s stingy father, Don Gilberto, keeps them in debt, and urges Tino to choose his family over the circus. She worries about their children, whose schooling consists solely of lessons in various big top acts. Among the few words daughter Alexia can write are her name, “mom”, “dad”, and “bear”. Instruction in reading and writing might be a welcome alternative. Alexia’s cousin, the youngest of the five children who travel with the circus, cries when her grandparents force her to do tumbling exercises, in scenes that record a harsh apprenticeship that borders on abuse.
Even the diehard bachelor uncle Tacho succumbs to the exhausting life in the ring and on the road. He marries and goes to live in a house with his new wife, who is treated with all the contempt heaped upon Yoko Ono by the other Beatles when she took up with John Lennon. We learn that Tino’s sister, the mother of the fledgling tumbler, has also left Circo Mexico.
Having seen how they live, it’s not hard to understand why members of the Ponce family leave the circus. Circo fails, however, in showing why they come back. Schock succeeds so well at demystifying the circus that we lose sight of the attraction it holds for the performers, why Tacho rejoins Circo Mexico, and why his sister performs during her visits to the Ponce family’s big top.
Since Schock has dedicated so much time to preserving Circo Mexico and the traveling circus way of life (the DVD making-of featurette demonstrates his respect for both), you have to wonder why he structured his documentary to dampen the affection for the circus that most viewers bring to the film.
While Schock’s cinematograpy and editing may emphasize the toil of the circus, the moody, nostalgia-drenched score by Calexico (a DVD short covers the making of the soundtrack) perfectly captures its tattered romance.