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Circo is a beautifully filmed, wonderfully scored documentary (music provided by Calexico). It follows a traveling circus as they try to make a living and hold their family together. It’s a sad story, a look into a really tragic sort of world, but it’s as compelling as it is visually stunning.
The tragedy lies mostly with the children, I think. They have been groomed from birth to be circus performers, no more and certainly no less. They are mostly illiterate, they have zero skills outside the tightrope or contortionist arenas, and they know nothing else. Watching a grandfather berate a toddler until she cries while attempting to do gymnastics moves is heartbreaking.
I guess for these people, in this situation, it’s a lot like the overbearing hockey parents here in Canada. Except that it’s a little more than that, because at least hockey parents have a bonkers, unrealistic goal of a child making millions of dollars and becoming famous. These parents, on the other hand, have the goal of turning their kids into faceless, penniless circus performers with no other life skills at all.
Watching Circo, in many ways, reminded me a lot of watching The Wrestler with Mickey Rourke. Both are stories about people who know only one thing in their whole lives, and don’t know how, or want to learn how, to do anything else. The only real difference is that one is fictional. Circo is a documentary about real people, a real circus, and real family problems.
Those family problems are at the heart of the story – the Ponce family has been doing this for years. Packing up their acrobats and animals and moving from town to town. Clearly a hardscrabble existence, with some shows making money and some not, the family begins to come apart at the seams.
There’s a father who knows nothing but the circus, like his own father and his father before him. There is his wife, who came from the city and is therefore not accepted by everyone in the traveling troupe. And their kids, torn between mom’s desire for a stable life and financial security and dad’s single-minded determination to cling to a lifestyle that appears to be dying or, maybe, already dead.
All of this is fascinating, but it’s the camera that is the real star of this movie. Capturing the family’s difficult, hard-working existence in the middle of a wonderful Mexican countryside. The beauty of the land between towns as they pass by contrasted with the dirty conditions and poverty they encounter in the towns themselves is stark. It all works.