The greatest show in rural Mexico: 'Circo' follows a long-running circus family
Tino Ponce, who makes his living leading the hardscrabble Gran Circo Mexico along the back roads of the Mexican countryside, calls his family’s circus life “tough and beautiful.’’ Tough, definitely. Beautiful, not so much.
But there is visual poetry in “Circo,’’ Aaron Schock’s debut documentary. He shot the film himself as he traveled with Tino, Tino’s wife, Ivonne, their four kids, and their extended family through rural Mexico in a beat-up bus with a faded clown’s face painted on the back. The gypsy-like Ponce clan ekes out a meager living by pitching their big top for a day or two. They then pack up their tattered animals and equipment and hit the next town, playing for small crowds of poor villagers who rock babies to sleep while they watch the Ponce children perform as contortionists, clowns, jugglers, and tightrope walkers.
This is no behind-the-scenes peek at the Big Apple Circus or a Ringling Brothers extravaganza. The Ponce family circus is a Mexican tradition that dates back to the late 19th century. By the 1980s, various family members broke away to start their own troupes; we learn that there are now about 25 Ponce family circuses still traveling around rural Mexico.
“Circo’’ offers a fascinating mix of backstage drama and family dynamics. Tino is the loyal son who can’t let go of the ragtag business, despite mounting debts and his wife’s concern for the future of their kids who, like Tino, are virtually illiterate. As their marriage begins to fall apart, Ivonne — who met Tino when the circus came though her town — insists that the only one who benefits from the family’s grueling work is Tino’s father, who owns the circus and is often seen counting the door take. Ivonne’s concerns are valid: We watch Alexia Ponce, 10, apply eye glitter before hitting the ring to do her contortions; Moises, 12, drives spikes into the ground at dawn; and the Ponce family patriarch — Tino’s father — pushes a tearful 5-year-old to practice endless back flips. The kids’ roles in the enterprise seem at best cheap labor and at worst abuse. Schock’s images of tiger cubs in cages and the battered, oversize Rugrats masks the kids wear during one of the acts offer subtle commentary on the circus’s entrapment of the Ponce children.
But there’s also the reality of limited options. We see packs of kids running along dirt roads in pursuit of the free circus tickets Tino’s father hands out from his car, as a way to ensure happy faces in the bleachers. Tino’s brother leaves the circus grind when he marries a woman against his parents’ wishes and, at least for a while, escapes the cycle. But the heart of the film is ringmaster Tino, whose allegiance to the family business threatens his marriage. Without heavy-handedness, the film raises universal issues of filial loyalty, whether children should serve their parents or vice versa, and what’s lost when cultural traditions run up against economic realities.
“Circo’’ perhaps delves into too many areas in its brief running time. But Schock’s gritty, haunting portrait of a way of life fast fading offers a glimpse of a Mexico that American audiences rarely get to see.
Loren King can be reached at email@example.com.