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Written by: Mark Becker, Aaron Schock
Directed by: Aaron Schock
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: Spanish, with English subtitles
Running Time: 75
Date: 06/01/2010

Circo (2011)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Lords of the Ring

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's an old story that goes back almost as far as the beginning of time: people aren't coming to the circus as often as they used to (when did they ever?) and circus folks are always struggling just to stay afloat. What's amazing is that this story is still being told today, as Aaron Schock's Circo indicates. This terrific, small-scale, quietly observant documentary follows the Mexican Ponce family as they travel from small town to small town, setting up and tearing down their circus. (They can't afford to play the big cities.)

We meet Tino Ponce, the ringmaster, who comes with plenty of drama in his life. We hear the romantic story of how he fell in love with Ivonne. "When a circus kid falls in love, he asks her to come with him," he explains, and she did. They had four kids, all of whom work in the circus as well as behind-the-scenes. But now their marriage is on the rocks. Likewise, Tino's brother fell in love, but he chose to stay behind and live in a house; it's an adjustment he finds difficult. Finally, there's Tino's fearsome old man, who still collects all the money and dominates his grown children as easily as he apparently did when they were small. (We see him practicing a contortionist act with a young granddaughter; she's screaming for mercy, but he persists, insulting her and pushing her on.)

The transitory nature of circus lives and the constant lack of money is an old story, but Schock gets between the cracks, following the children as they practice their circus acts, pound stakes, and play with dangerous animals. One strapping young fellow leaves a trail of willing girls in every town, and we see eight or nine of them flirting with him as he coyly feigns disinterest. The film is filled with fascinating details and gorgeous imagery, from using a candle to seal the little plastic bags containing circus snacks, to recording the booming-voiced announcements, to daring high-flying tightrope stunts.

The movie comes credited with a co-writer, Mark Becker, and the IMDb lists it as a "drama" as well as a documentary, so I suppose we can gripe about its authenticity, but essentially Circo is a backstage drama. It's about that moment when a sad, troubled performer leaves the wings, puts on a happy face and becomes an entertainer, a means for everyone else in the world to forget their own troubles. There's something special about a circus in that it blurs this line more than any other medium. It's already a sad place, with its dusty floors and the way it appears and disappears so quickly. Circo understands all this and brings it all together in a way that is moving as well as joyous. It's still the greatest show on earth.

First Run Features released an excellent DVD (no Blu-Ray). It comes with a 5.1 audio mix as well as a 2.0 mix. Extras include an update on the Ponce family (7 minutes), a making-of featurette (4 minutes), and a featurette on the score (11 minutes). There are links for more information about Circo, and trailers for other First Run releases.

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