As the surprise box-office success story of the last six months or so, Michael Gracey’s “The Greatest Showman” indicated that contrary to the film’s sniffy critical reception, there is indeed an audience for glitzy, period-inflected, fanfare-filled stories of life beneath the Big Top. But its word-of-mouth slow build to moneymaking, cult-spawning juggernaut status is unlikely to be replicated by Brazilian veteran Carlos Diegues’ return to the directing fray with “The Great Mystical Circus.”
After a decade spent nurturing other talents from the region (including an associate producer credit on Kleber Mendonça Filho’s superb “Aquarius”) Diegues, a Cinema Novo pioneer with such titles as “Bye Bye Brazil,” “Ganga Zumba,” and “Quilombo” under his belt, essays his own take on circus maximalism, but delivers a magical realist misfire; an uncomfortably soapy high-wire act that stumbles right out the gate and never stops tumbling.
Based on a poem by celebrated Brazilian polymath Jorge de Lima, “The Great Mystical Circus” tracks five generations of Austrian family circus performers, and the mysteriously ageless, androgynous Master of Ceremonies, Celavi (Jesuíta Barbosa) who provides gnomic commentary on their rise and fall. It begins in 1910 when wealthy young doctor and unwitting aristocrat Frederic Knieps (Rafael Lozano), falls for a willful exotic dancer (Bruna Linzmeyer) and buys her a circus to perform in as a pledge of his troth.
Their daughter inherits the circus but grows up to be a mousy, timid thing (Marina Provenzzano) in thrall to an obviously duplicitous, sneering French mime, played by Vincent Cassel, who marries her for her money and then absconds with it, confirming every negative assumption one ever might have had about mimes. He does, however, have an enormous penis, which practically takes his future wife’s eye out when she glimpses it through a keyhole, so there’s that.
With accelerating speed and somehow decreasing engagement, Diegues whips through the next couple of generations of the Knieps clan, with the enterprise now under the stewardship of Margarete (Mariana Ximenes), a talented trapeze artist who longs to be a nun — to run away from the circus. And who could blame her, when under its increasingly tatty canvas, the place slides ever further into decline, its First Family beset by drug addiction, rape, suicide, sexual confusion, incest and terminal whimsy?
Every now and then a musical number perks things up a little (the songs, by Chico Buarque and Edu Lobo are borrowed from a 1980s musical adaptation of the same poem, and are pleasant enough distractions, if lacking the full-throated razzmatazz of a “This Is Me”). Less successfully, Celavi, who has apparently supped not only from the font of eternal youth but the wellspring of eternal irritation too, pops up intermittently to gurn and preen and wink at the viewer and remind us how very mystical it all is.
So you get the picture: Beautiful contortionists die in childbirth onstage, midwifed by tumbling clowns and lion tamers; well-endowed Pierrot-faced seducers painfully deflower quivering virgins; loinclothed strong men rape pious trapeze artists; giggling twin girl-ninnies end up incestuously involved with their own father and being prostituted to support the failing circus, despite the fact that, apparently, they can fly. “The Great Mystical Circus” has little holding all this malarkey together except a mile-wide streak of unexamined sexism that mistakes bawdiness and frequent female nudity for the kind of perfumed eroticism that itself went out of fashion along with the sinister pageantry and animal cruelty of the classic three-ring circus.
After 100 incident-packed years, the film ends in what’s apparently meant to be nearly contemporary times, with chuckling fatcats goggling in wonder as the last descendants of the pretty Belle Epoque dancer and her smitten beau (Louise and Amanda Britto) twirl nakedly above them in mid-air. And despite that long, storied century of baroque shenanigans, the effect of the film is similarly weightless. Celavi’s name is a play on his regular refrain of “C’est la vie!” of course, but “The Great Mystical Circus” is not life, and is not even the grand guignol spectacle of its ambitions; it is, at best, a sideshow.