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Originally published April 21, 2011 at 3:02 PM | Page modified April 21, 2011 at 3:15 PM

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Movie review

'Circo': one of the greatest shows on a real bare-bones circus family

A movie review of "Circo," a stark, melancholy and beautifully realized portrait of a bare-bones family circus that travels the vast Mexican countryside eking out a meager living and maintaining a lifestyle that has been part of their ancestry for more than 100 years.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3.5 stars

'Circo,' a documentary by Aaron Schock. 75 minutes. Not rated; suitable for general audiences. Varsity.

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The stark, melancholy and beautifully realized portrait of a bare-bones family circus that travels the vast Mexican countryside in "Circo" is sort of a modern-day version of "Toby Tyler," only without a frisky, mischievous Mr. Stubbs as comic relief.

This is a daily grind of sweat and sawdust inhabited by 10 exhausted members of an extended clan whose ancestors first ran away to run a circus more than 100 years ago.

Their little big-top show is known as the Gran Circus Mexico, with the strapping, stoic Tino Ponce performing duties of ringmaster, roustabout, lion tamer and father to four children, who have traded their childhood for this grueling version of show business.

Tino does most of the work wrangling tents, trailers, animals and children on the never-ending circus road show from one dusty village to the next, but he's not the man in charge. It's his father, who owns the business and reaps the bulk of its meager reward, a fact of life for Tino but a constant source of exasperation for his wife, Ivonne.

The illiterate Tino is relentlessly doing battle with Ivonne over the life their children are missing (though the kids seem happy enough), over his father's iron rule, over Tino's stubborn adherence to family tradition.

Ivonne's a city girl who really did run away to join the circus. But at this stage in their lives, Tino's bullheadedness and unwavering familial allegiance is tearing the marriage apart.

The family dynamic that emerges among husband and wife, parents and children, brothers and sisters is as engrossing as the punishing lifestyle they all endure for a few minutes of glory in the ring. The images and anecdotes captured by filmmaker Aaron Schock's unobtrusive camera are alternately sad and lovely.

Ultimately it's the relationship drama that he teases out with such subtle shading and visual skill that makes "Circo" as enthralling an anthropological study as it is a glimpse of exuberant reality for a genuine circus family that has barely changed since the 19th century.

Ted Fry: tedfry@hotmail.com

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