“Circo” takes viewers into the world of a traveling Mexican circus whose members set up their tent in tiny rural towns, entertain shrinking numbers of locals, and deal with mounting debt and familial friction behind the scenes.
Combining unassumingly inimitable site specifics with resonant domestic dynamics, it is a small but memorable and satisfying film.
Serving up two of the breeds of documentary that make nonfiction cinema so precious, first-time feature director Aaron Schock both immerses us in a sphere of unusual culture and acquaints us intimately with a family experiencing atypical and gripping challenges.
His subject is the Gran Circo Mexico, part of a 19th-century-born circus run by the Ponce family. Traveling caravan-style, the 10 participating Ponces, five of them children, do everything from assembling the tent to taming lions to performing contortion acts.
“Through the good and bad, there’s always the circus,” says ringmaster Tino Ponce, Schock’s compellingly conflicted central subject.
The son of owner Don Gilberto, Tino derives a feeling of purpose from the devoted work he puts into keeping the circus going. But he acknowledges that this effort, which involves the hardworking participation of his children, has created family difficulties.
Especially affected is Tino’s wife, Ivonne, who believes that Tino is letting his parents deprive him of due wages and making their children work excessively when the kids should be living in a house and attending school. The pair’s conflict over these issues is fracturing the marriage.
Employing a Frederick Wiseman-style approach, in which he submerges the camera in a universe of activity and presents what unfolds without overt judgment, Schock doesn’t capture anything immensely revelatory or dramatic, though interesting ripples occur.
Additionally, the movie’s concise length makes it hard to become adequately acquainted with all the primary players. Tino’s brother Tacho — the circus’s “globe of death” performer — and his new girlfriend, whom Tacho and Tino’s parents deride, we’d like to know better, for starters.
Still, the movie contains stories, dimension and beauty worthy of big-screen viewing. Schock presents an affecting portrait of one traveling circus and of a vanishing way of life, despite occasionally going overboard with the metaphor (a Ponce child looking as caged as the tiger cubs she is petting).
The depiction of Tino and Ivonne’s troubled marriage contains stirring urgency.
The film also impresses the eyes. Acting as cinematographer, Schock presents the backroads of economically depressed rural Mexico and the DIY qualities of the circus performances with visual poetry — a look that quietly and beautifully conveys the sad fate of circuses like the Ponces’.
With Tino Ponce, Ivonne Ponce, Tacho Ponce
Written by Aaron Schock, Mark Becker
Directed by Aaron Schock
Running time 1 hour 15 minutes
Note: Schock will speak at 7 and 9:30 p.m. screenings today and Saturday at the Lumiere Theatre, 1572 California St., San Francisco.