A traveling-circus fable whose titular protag has lost his laughter, “The Clown” will put a sad smile on even the most cynical face. As gentle, meandering and nostalgic as the troupe it trails from village to village, Selton Millo’s sophomore effort (after 2008’s “December”) is simple but not simplistic, and deftly avoids a number of potential pitfalls; if it never achieves real intensity, its quiet, gently satirical humor and playful spirit offer much to enjoy. A hit at home, where Mello and many of his co-stars have high profiles, the pic is Brazil’s Oscar submission for best foreign-language film.
Chubby-faced, hapless Benjamim (Mello, also a gifted thesp and clown based on the evidence here) is the funnyman at a traveling circus run by his father, Waldemar (Paulo Jose). A lengthy early sequence reps a lively, pleasant homage to the art of clowning. But Benjamim is privately despondent, longing for a more stable life involving home, kids and a regular job.
The troupe includes some pretty wacky types, including Lady Zaire (Teuda Bara), who informs Benjamim she’s broken her bra and asks him to find her a new one; beauty Lola (Giselle Motta), who’s having an affair with Waldemar and pocketing the circus’ proceeds; strongman Gordini (Thogun); little person Meio-Quilo (Tony Tonelada), his name translated in subtitles as Quarter Pounder; and thoroughly charming tyke Guilhermina (Larissa Manoela), silently observing and learning from everything around her. Appropriately for characters who know little about the real world, the pic’s silences mostly count for more than its dialogue.
Benjamim grows more and more morose — this is one clown who never smiles offstage — but when an audience member, (Pritty Borges), tells him how much she’s enjoyed the show, he dares to dream about leaving the troupe to find his freedom.
The script follows the troupe from town to town and setpiece to setpiece, with the boys at one point getting arrested after a barroom brawl. The pic’s basic point, delivered in scenes of varying comic success, is that the world outside the circus is even crazier than it is inside, and could use some of the performers’ lighthearted innocence.
It’s a neat enough notion, but carrying it through leaves the comedy feeling somewhat forced, while the darker subtext — the implication, for example, that Benjamim is entirely unfit for real life — remains unexplored. The folks they encounter on the road are indeed more freakish than the performers, and Moacyr Franco delivers a particularly enjoyable turn as a corrupt local lawman.
Of the many characters, only Benjamim is individualized to any degree, which keeps the pic winning on the surface but not especially involving at any deeper level. Humor is mainly of the surreal, absurdist variety, and while Mello demonstrates a talent for the understated moment, he also tends to favor tired running gags and lets scenes run a few beats too long. But time is found for moments of quieter reflection, too, as when Benjamim silently performs for a local girl on the back of a truck as it crosses the vast rural landscape.
The accordion-based score, by the marvelously named Plinio Profeta, is often appropriately carnivalesque, calling to mind the work of Emir Kusturica, while d.p. Adrian Teijido exploits the anonymous expanses of rural Brazil to good effect.