The reality of fantasy is the playfully paradoxical focus of “Mister Universo,” the third feature from filmmakers Rainer Frimmel and Tizza Covi to gently scrutinize the lives of circus performers beyond the big top. Revisiting one of the young subjects of their 2009 breakthrough “La Pivellina” — the now-grown but still-naive lion tamer Tairo Caroli — the Austrian-Italian duo’s airy docu-narrative approach once more yields wry, humane rewards, particularly once Tairo embarks on his own sort of modestly mythic quest. Honored with a special jury citation following its Locarno premiere, this grit-and-glitter charmer will draw a few “been-there-done-that” shrugs from critics and specialists acquainted with Frimmel and Cozi’s oeuvre. But it should cast more of a spell on the uninitiated further along the festival circuit — including an upcoming Toronto berth — and is likely to build on the marginal U.S. distribution accorded the helmers’ previous features.
“La Pivellina” and 2012’s “The Shine of Day” both played as pre-emptive elegies for a circus culture disappearing before the camera’s own sympathetic gaze; “Mister Universo” follows suit, with some of the most direct carnival-is-over symbolism imaginable. Tairo may be young — previously caught aged 13 in “La Pivellina,” he’s now a stocky, bolshy 20-year-old — but he’s charged with an ageing, dwindling pride of big cats. One tiger has recently died, with no replacement forthcoming; should Frimmel and Cozi elect to catch up with Tairo in 2023, “7 Up”-style, it seems unlikely he’ll still be taming lions for a living. The film’s very title, meanwhile, alludes to the diminished standing of a particular breed of showman. “Mister Universo” seemingly describes the world’s most indomitable man; here, the moniker belongs to 87-year-old strongman, Arthur Robin, who cheerfully admits to being a shadow of his former self. (All things being relative, of course: The first person of color to win the eponymous bodybuilding title in 1957, the French-Guadeloupan Robin still cuts a fine figure today.)
The narrative path that connects this prematurely obsolete young buck and this weakened alpha male eventually leads an otherwise vérité-oriented film into whimsical modern-fable territory — though not before a leisurely, observational first half documenting the daily trials of, and tensions within, the traveling company to which Tairo belongs. While circus crews are often portrayed in fiction as happy, ragtag families of freewheeling misfits, the group dynamic here is more fractious and banal. Tairo has a platonic ally in Wendy Weber, a sweet-and-salty young gymnast whose jaw-dropping performance skills get a late-film showcase, but otherwise, his petulant machismo rubs his colleagues the wrong way.
Frimmel and Covi find dry comedy in the everyday sniping and acts of petty payback between the crew, though when Tairo’s prized bent-iron amulet — a boyhood souvenir from “Mister Universo” himself — is stolen by one of his enemies, he’s sent into a tailspin. Superstitiously believing his mojo to have been lost with the talisman, he sets about securing another one from the man who gifted it to him in the first place. What ensues is a droll, detour-ridden road movie, as Tairo sets off in search of Robin — pinpointing his whereabouts in the Italian circus community through a series of chatty encounters with family and fellow showfolk. It’s an adventure unapologetically low on incident and urgency: The pleasures here are to be found in the social, cultural and shifting generational peculiarities of this lively sector of working-class Italy, captured with minimal self-awareness by Frimmel’s unobtrusively intimate camera. (As usual, the helmers divide shooting and editing duties between them; Covi’s cutting preserves an appropriate sense of shagginess to Tairo’s wanderings, while keeping matters to an unassuming 90 minutes.)
There is perhaps more contrivance at work here than in Frimmel and Cozi’s previous films, though that’s partly what makes “Mister Universo” quietly beguiling. What amounts, at a most literal level, to a fairytale premise — a search to recover a missing amulet with supposedly magical powers — stands in witty contrast to the drab contemporary environment it plays out in: an Italy of trailer parks, gray freeways and seemingly perma-damp weather. For all their interest in circus people, the filmmakers spend very little time in the circus — the few glimpses we get make for fire-bright dream flashes in the film’s otherwise muted 35mm lensing, far removed from the real lives of the characters. They linger longer, instead, on a passing demonstration of natural illusionism: a sloping road outside Rome where, to the fascination of locals, water appears to flow uphill. The true marvels in “Mister Universo” reveal themselves far outside the ring.