Clown for a New Day

Clown for a New Day
Dagwood might make it in today's emasculated circus

Friday, May 13, 2011

Mexican Family Circus Plan on Film: "Circo" Captures the Spare Beauty of a Profitless Passion

Movie Review: Circo

The Ponce Family in Circo.

It should be no surprise to American circusgoers that Mexicans will perform for practically nothing, just so long as the show goes on, so long as they can continue to live under the tents, in their house trailers, express their art to audiences however small, and sell enough tickets to pay for the gas, the lot fees, the printing of free tickets, and the payments on outstanding loans driving them deeper into debt.

This humble tradition, the Mexican family circus plan, has stocked our bottom feeder big tops with a numbing succession of semi-pro performers whose signature staple is the house hula hoop twirl (you’ll see it here). But it has also given us top stars, among them the world’s greatest trapeze flyers. And here, too, you’ll see this side in the figure of a young man with the potential to command the ring. His name (if I have the credits right) is Cascaras Ponce. We see him practicing on his own, a young self-motivated performer showing promise on the fabrics and the low wire, and also being trained by his father, Tino, to handle wild animals.

As for the other acts, mostly generic (this is not much of a circus performance film), we have seen all of them before, we who patronize smaller shows.

There is a bitter and beautiful truth behind this remarkably honest documentary, Circo, evenhandedly filmed by director Aaron Schock, who realizes completion in 75 taut and grainy minutes.

We follow the Ponce family sinking into uncertainty as a tension between Tino and his disillusioned wife, Ivonne, keeps coming to the fore, threatening to explode at any moment. An outsider to the circus who met Tino when she was 15, Ivonne only sees a bleak future for their four children, believing that they each deserve an education and a home life. We see her pressing Tino to rethink his obsession with the ring, feeling he should be spending more time with his children and wife.

But Tino, whose whole life has been spent under the big top, considers the circus and his family to be one, joined together by a common enterprise in which they all play a critical part. And this forms a challenging irony. There is much here below the surface; some critics see Circo as a metaphor for the problems plaguing Mexican society.

I found myself rooting for Ivonne, at the same time respecting Tino's position. They are both inherently good people, and the film, to its credit, does not attempt to extract a nasty confrontation between the two.

Circo gives off a spare quiet beauty, and I believed every frame. The day-to-day grind only underscores Tino’s hopeless passion for keeping the family together and in spangles. “Through the good and the bad, always the circus,” is his only philosophy. The only thing he knows. In one of the most touching and telling scenes, Ivonne teaches him how to write his own name.

In another scene not so touching , five-year-old Naydelin is badgered to tears by her strict grandfather to keep practicing her back flips. Not a pretty frame. Like the movie, however, it is neither melodramatic nor contrived. I believed it all.

The principal ordeal becomes increasingly intolerable to Ivonne, who finally makes a break which feels not just right but heroic. We watch her and three of the children making an exit, standing at a bus stop, luggage and pillows in hand, on their way to a more stable existence in one place where the kids can go to school. And then, after that maybe, let them each decide if they still wish to resume spreading canvas, setting up seats, dodging mud puddles, juggling clubs and turning somersaults before small back road audiences. If they still feel, as their father does, that “through the good and the bad, always the circus.”


A film that I high recommend.

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