'Circo': Under The Big Top And Fraying At The Seams

The Old Block, Chipping: Three generations of the Ponce family — including Reyna, a young acrobat who grew up in the family business — make up the venerable but vulnerable Gran Circo de Mexico. i i

The Old Block, Chipping: Three generations of the Ponce family — including Reyna, a young acrobat who grew up in the family business — make up the venerable but vulnerable Gran Circo de Mexico. First Run Features hide caption

itoggle caption First Run Features
The Old Block, Chipping: Three generations of the Ponce family — including Reyna, a young acrobat who grew up in the family business — make up the venerable but vulnerable Gran Circo de Mexico.

The Old Block, Chipping: Three generations of the Ponce family — including Reyna, a young acrobat who grew up in the family business — make up the venerable but vulnerable Gran Circo de Mexico.

First Run Features

Circo

  • Director: Aaron Schock
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running Time: 75 minutes

Not rated; adult themes

With Tino Ponce, Ivonne Ponce, Tacho Ponce

In Spanish with English subtitles

Lions and tigers and bills, oh my! A small circus may be more glamorous than some family businesses, but not by much, according to the moderately revealing new documentary Circo.

The not-very-grand La Gran Circo de Mexico, which features three generations of the Ponce family, plays one-night stands in towns whose populations can't fill even its less-than-big top. Ringmaster Tino hopes to expand the spectacle until the circus can earn gigs in larger cities. But some members of the clan — including Tino's wife, Ivonne — contemplate shrinking the company.

The Ponces travel with one lion, two young tigers, a camel and a few other animals. The menagerie's lives seem dreary, but the creatures are hardly more exploited than the family's children; almost as soon as they could walk, Tino and Ivonne's four kids (and one niece) began training as jugglers, gymnasts and contortionists.

The kids largely accept their roles. In one troubling scene, 5-year-old Naydelin weeps as she's ordered to keep practicing despite her hunger. Yet the girl, the child of Tino's sister, prefers to stay with the circus rather than live with her mother, who quit the road for a settled life.

"They give us too much," says a dubious Ivonne, who would like the children to live in a house and go to school.

Ivonne is also concerned about the family members she thinks take too much: her in-laws, Gilberto and Lupe, who still own the circus but do little except sell tickets and collect the receipts.

More tensions emerge when Tacho, Tino's brother and the circus' "globe of death" motorcyclist, marries an older woman and decides to live with her. Threatened emotionally as well as financially, Gilberto hisses that Tacho's wife is "like the devil."

The Ponce family's traveling circus has toured Mexico for more than 100 years but begins to fracture as financial burdens mount. i i

The Ponce family's traveling circus has toured Mexico for more than 100 years but begins to fracture as financial burdens mount. First Run Features hide caption

itoggle caption First Run Features
The Ponce family's traveling circus has toured Mexico for more than 100 years but begins to fracture as financial burdens mount.

The Ponce family's traveling circus has toured Mexico for more than 100 years but begins to fracture as financial burdens mount.

First Run Features

Director and videographer Aaron Schock intimately observes the threadbare operation, from the traveling evangelist who leads the family in prayer to close-ups of the ordinary light bulbs strung together to make dark rural pastures resemble a big-city boulevard. He also carefully structures the film, which is framed by two parallel scenes, although he withholds some information too long.

But what drives the narrative — aside from Calexico's wistful Latin-indie-rock score — is the prospect that the Ponces will experience a major rupture. Will the various comings and goings undermine the circus, and will a central figure ultimately defect?

Unfortunately for the film, Schock didn't capture any significant family confrontations on camera. He's forced to use voiceover recollections and a symbolic moment to convey the most important development.

The contrast between Schock's discreet approach and the family's stormy differences could have been powerful. But without much of the latter captured on film, Circo feels all too diffident. Its details are evocative, but they don't coalesce into a complete picture.

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