Under the big top world
We all need the clowns to make us smile
Through space and time
Always another show
Wondering where I am
Lost without you — “Faithfully,” by Journey
Those Jonathan Cain lyrics kept flashing through my mind while I watched “Circo,” a melancholic documentary about the slow dissolution of a Mexican circus family. To the folks in the stands, the circus is excitement and thrills. To the men, women, and children who run that circus it’s a job, and not an especially glamorous one, either. Like Steve Perry sang, there’s always another show, and that grind takes its toll.
The family grinding away is the Ponces who have operated the Circo Mexico for decades. Three generations of Ponces work the circus; patriarch Don Gilberto inherited the life from his own father and his three siblings each have their own traveling circuses as well. Though Gilberto runs the business, most of the day-to-day operations are handled by his son Tino, Tino’s wife Ivonne, and their children, who put up the tents, care for the livestock, and perform in the nightly shows. Everyone has to do their part. The younger children put on bootleg “Rugrats” masks and totter around while the older kids perform tightrope and contortionist acts.
Tino’s children are very talented. But they’re also illiterate. Life on the road teaches you how to handle wild tigers and hang gracefully from ropes, but doesn’t provide much time for reading or math lessons. Tino can fix a truck engine but can’t quite figure out how to write his own name. And prospects for the Circo Mexico aren’t great. Their family-run operation isn’t impressive enough to play major cities, so they travel the backroads, performing to dwindling crowds in tiny villages. Debt’s piling up. Director Aaron Schock makes it plain: despite the best efforts of the Ponces, this way of life is coming to an end. And they might not be preparing their kids for when that day arrives.
The Ponces initially look like a charmingly close-knit family, but they’re eventually revealed as a dysfunctional troupe to rival the titular clan from “Capturing the Friedmans.” It’s hard not to draw comparisons between the younger family members and the Circo’s zoo animals, who are caged up, dragged from town to town, and trotted out to perform against their will. And really all the aspects of the circus reflect metaphorically on the Ponce’s problems, from the tightrope Tino walks between his family’s and his wife’s desires, to the contortionists who literally bend over backwards to fit their elders’ expectations, to the “Globe of Death” that ensnares Tino’s brother Tacho even when he tries to make a new life away from Circo Mexico. Schock teases out all these connections with clever visual juxtapositions.
In some ways, “Circo” reminded me of Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan;” it is another meditation on the sacrifices artists make for their craft and their audiences. The Circo Mexico continues to bring pleasure to thousands of people in Mexico, at the expense of the misery of many who operate it. There is something undeniably beautiful and undeniably sad about that. Tino really is balanced precariously between two losing positions: if he leaves the circus, he makes his wife happy but dooms his parents to poverty. If he stays, his kids won’t know how to do anything else when the circus inevitably shuts down. There are no easy answers in “Circo,” just sad realities and dreams slowly dying. But even as those dreams fade, the Ponces endure. And why not? With nowhere else to turn, they don’t stop believing.