The circus can be great for the family — to attend, but maybe not to run, as illustrated by American filmmaker Aaron Schock in his gently made “Circo.” Schock’s the outsider looking in on La Gran Circo de Mexico, run by the multigenerational Ponce family and touring central and northern Mexico while family members confront stark future prospects. While pic could have taken a tougher-minded view of this interweaving of familial loyalty, performance and tradition, its smoother approach will make it more sellable for theatrical and public TV.
Tino Ponce and his wife, Ivonne, raise four kids in the circus, which is owned by Tino’s rather controlling father, circus vet Gilberto, alongside loyal wife Lupe. The tensions, which had surely been rising before Schock’s camera arrived on the scene but are now coming to a boil (perhaps because of the camera?), center on Ivonne resenting the excessive amount of time Tino spends on the circus, at the expense of any normal family life. To Ivonne, Tino’s need to live up to and exceed Gilberto’s expectations drives his workaholic manner.
Still, it’s fair to wonder, considering (as Schock does) how everyone in the circus is constantly juggling various duties (everything from truck driving and performing to building and tearing down a tent complex), if anything like a normal family life even a remote possibility given this business. When Tino’s brother Tacho momentarily leaves the circus to live with his wife in an actual house, Gilberto and Lupe hardly disguise their disgust for the woman, even calling her “evil.”
There’s a dark undercurrent to the events in the film that Schock is too mild-mannered to really explore. He’s drawn more to the ways in which each parent and child does or doesn’t adapt and thrive under the big-top, which they lug around, erect and take down at every town and city at which they stop. Tino’s eldest kid, Cascaras, is clearly his dad’s son, learning to master trapeze and the backstage mechanics of the circus; by contrast, the youngest, Naydelin, is pushed to go to kindergarten, and it’s clear Ivonne will be the dominant parent in her life.
For some reason (perhaps the traditional circus’ tenuous existence as an entertainment biz), a spate of films about families and their circuses have appeared in recent years, including no fewer than two by helmers Tizza Covi and Rainer Brummel (“Babooska,” “La Pivellina”) and Jacques Rivette’s “Around a Small Mountain.” Ranked in this group, “Circo” is minor. But as an outsider’s view of a generally ignored corner of Mexican life, it’s notable for the ease with which Schock becomes a part of the traveling clan. Music by the unit Calexico is both too much and too trite, serving up a standard “Mexican” banda sound.