Circo has a beautiful rhythm. The film opens on a short, powerfully built Mexican man standing in the back of a large tractor trailer that's clearly seen better days. The man, whom we soon learn is Tino Ponce, is holding a recording device, trying to get the announcements that will play over a small loudspeaker just right. Tino's circus is arriving to a new village, and we're witnessing the beginning of a series of rituals that are more than second nature for Tino and his extended family. The circus life is, well, really first nature, a truth that gradually drives Tino and his wife Ivonne apart over the course of the film.
This opening is marvelously evocative of our conflicting feelings about the circus. There is, obviously, the awe of watching people dangle over wires and taunt lions and bound through fire, while smelling and eating an assortment of fried and sugary foods that reaffirm the wonderful occasional indulgence of an appealingly antiquated and primal form of entertainment. But there's also, as we grow up, the realization that these series of illusions depend upon the exploitation and belittlement of powerful, graceful animals that deserve far better, as well as the unshakable suspicion that the human performers hardly have it better. Tino practicing his huckster showman boasts for the next town in his nearly dilapidated trailer so immediately embodies all of these irreconcilable feelings that you wonder if the rest of the film can sustain that sort of ambiguous power, or if it will ultimately—like far too many feature-length documentaries—prove to be a promising short trapped in a bloated full length film's body.
Director Aaron Schock fulfills the promise of his opening: Circo has the succinct haunting contradiction of a good Steinbeck story, perhaps something out of Tortilla Flat. Schock follows Tino and his family, which includes his parents, his children, and a few siblings and nephews, as they move across rural Mexico from town to town, working their asses off just to keep moving. Ivonne is burned out, feeling, from what we can see rightly, that Tino is devoting his life to an unending pursuit from which his father reaps the majority of rewards; he asserts that the money is going back into the family business, and that this is how it has always worked. But Ivonne wants her children to have a life that includes school and actual recreation (most of the adults, including Tino and Ivonne's oldest son, are illiterate). Ivonne wants a conventional life that doesn't rigidly fit the mold of their elders, and so the film revolves around the classic domestic conflict: to be your own person or to uphold the family tradition.
This conflict isn't melodramatically trumped up by crude editing shorthand; it arises from scenes we see of the day-to-day practices of erecting and taking down a circus, of putting on the show itself, of trying to drum up support from broke villagers, and of simply maintaining a degree of privacy and dignity during the long-cramped road trips. Schock exhibits the feel for casual yet revealing details that suggests the potential of a major filmmaker. There are moments, such as the family having breakfast, that acclimate you to the push-and-pull of the varying family dynamics without compromising the spontaneity and pleasure of simple experiences, such as watching some cheesy superhero show while eating eggs, cheese, and beans. This breakfast encounter is framed in a way that establishes the geography of the cramped quarters as well as each family member's way of establishing their own private space, which is their identity and control. Circo has a number of other images that will stay with you, such as those of Tino's son twirling high on the ropes in the air, or of the small daughter learning the first moves of contortion, or of the young niece turning her face away from her mother to eat her chocolate wafer as the mother leaves the circus for what is probably a long time.
Circo celebrates the Ponce family's skill and commitment while eulogizing their life as a kind of imprisonment that probably ensures their continued struggle and discomfort, and the film is so haunting because it never tries to rectify the contradiction of addressing the needs of the self versus the needs of family. Schock realizes that those needs aren't so easily separable. Tino's loyalty to his father strikes us as myopic and possibly inadvertently abusive (his kids view themselves as his employees), but we see that the circus—and the drive to prove himself to his father—are legitimate passions that are born out of probably equal parts familial brainwashing and natural personal inclination. This film doesn't glorify passion in the usual struggling underdog way that plagues so many films; you see the brief triumphs along with the confusions and misery.
There's a larger meaning to Circo, and the film is proof that the macro really derives from the micro, which most broad, socially conscious movies fail to understand. Circo paints a portrait of an economically uncertain country torn between past and present customs by telling the story of a Mexican circus through a series of images that are exhilaratingly alive and unfussy. This film deserves to be included among the handful of docs that audiences actually support each year, as it's one of the most humane, not to mention pleasurable, docs that I've seen in years.