In spite of its brief 75-minute runtime, Circo, a documentary portrait of the Circo Mexico circus troupe, is too sprawling to be the comprehensive look at circus life that its director Aaron Schock wanted it to be. Schock’s film flits about three generations of circus performers: Circo Mexico ringmaster Tino Ponce and his mother and sons. The idea of the circus as an inheritance is thus bandied about throughout Circo. And yet, for all of Ponce’s talk of legacy, there’s a surprising lack of footage of his family performing throughout. In fact, there’s not much of anything in Circo.
Schock tries to cover every aspect of circus life, from how hard it is for circus performers to fall in love with anyone not involved with the circus to the way that Ponce’s children voluntarily work for him. As a result, Circo is more of a collection of interesting snapshots of Circo Mexico than it is a cogent and authoritative statement.
Schock doesn’t try to get too intimate with his film’s subjects. Whenever Ponce and his family are pressed to provide specific, telling details about their lives in Circo, he almost never follows up with, uh, follow-up questions. This presumably is his way of preserving the mystery and exoticism that one associates with the circus. And yet, for that to be an aesthetically valid decision, Schock would have to try to decisively replicate the visceral experience of attending the circus. He doesn’t do that. Instead, Shock cut-cut-cuts from scene to scene to scene, never settling on questions or answers that give us anything more than unspecific insights into what keeps Circo Mexico going (family, predictably).
This is especially frustrating because Schock does include some fascinating anecdotal footage, like when Tino’s mother describes how she used to perform without a circus tent over her head, or Cascaras, Tino’s eldest son, turning down a veritable harem of hot-to-trot teen girls. Sadly, what ultimately defines Circo is its use of soundbite-friendly declarations like when Tino proudly exclaims, “We were born here and we’ll all die here in the circus.” The film doesn’t provide enough context for that quote to make sense. It’s seductive hyperbole and not much more.
The image quality on this DVD release is woefully unpolished as much of the footage is noticeably interlaced. The Spanish 5.1 soundtrack is poorly mixed. Calexico's blaring score looms large over dialogue and other diegetic background noises.
Apart from a skimpy but interesting look at where the Ponces are now, there's little of value here. There's a four-minute segment in which Schock explains how he came to direct the film and settle on its subject, which reads like a lifeless director's statement illustrated with some stirring footage from Mexico. There's also a boring 11-minute behind-the-scenes look at how alt-country band Calexico composed the film's score.
Circo is too all over the place to be more than just a missed opportunity.