“This Friday, the opening of the most spectacular circuses of all time—the great Circo Mexico!” Columbia alum Aaron Schock’s new documentary, “Circo,” begins with this familiar cajoling shout, in a tone often reserved for street corner or stage. This time, though, the words echo off a truck interior, as a sweat-drenched man yells into his tape recorder, tirelessly practicing to get the announcement right.
This man is Tino Ponce, ringmaster of his family’s centuries-old circus and subject of “Circo,” which opens Friday, April 1 at the IFC Center. The film chronicles the hectic life of Tino and his family as they drag the Circo Mexico from small town to small town, striving to stay afloat through the dwindling economy and their mounting debt.
In times so tough, every family member must contribute, especially Tino’s five children, who perform a majority of the acts. They have never gone to school or even learned to read. This troubles his wife, Ivonne, a former town dweller who married into the Ponce’s traveling lifestyle. She worries her children are being exploited—while Tino, himself an illiterate son of the circus, insists on pushing forward, determined that the show will succeed.
It was this drive that caught Schock’s eye when, on a break from researching another potential documentary subject, he frequented the Circo Mexico. There, according to the film’s press release, he recognized the “beguiling performances” of “a rich, complex, and authentic rural tradition.” During his eight solo trips to Mexico over the next 21 months, Schock was able to observe the continuation of that tradition up close.
Schock’s pared-down, personal style of documentation shapes the film’s subtly stunning visuals. Schock manages to capture an intentionally fantastical lifestyle with simplicity and grace. And as the family’s fraught story unfolds, the refrain of cinematographic performance takes on poignant significance. From a motorcyclist speeding inside a spherical cage to a young boy suspended upside down, wrestling to free himself from chains—each act comes to personify the restrictiveness inherent in this demanding cultural heritage.
As Tino himself puts it, life in the circus is a sort of tightrope walk, treading the generational line that separates his commitments to his family history and to his wife. He wavers between filial tradition and societal change, afraid of what a fall on either side might mean.
Universal in its struggle for cultural identity but still personal as a portrait of a hardworking family, “Circo” is a fitting and beautiful tribute to the men, women, and children who toil behind Circo Mexico’s threadbare curtain. It is an ode to the sacrifice of those who stop at nothing to perform something spectacular.