The Italy of Mister Universo is one of poverty and nostalgia, where people live in caravans, eat off of paper plates, and hold on to physical photographs. There seems to be no internet here. If there were, a Google search would have rendered moot Tairo’s (Tairo Caroli) quest to find Arthur Robin, a famous strongman who gave Tairo a piece of twisted iron as a gift when Tairo was five. A lion-taming circus performer, Tairo grows fixated with finding out about Robin after his iron keepsake goes missing, prompting him to go on something of a road trip in which he stops by his brother’s, his aunt’s, and his mother’s trailers in order to ask if they, too, remember his childhood hero.
Mister Universo starts off as a raw portrait of a young man, steeped in a rather refreshing documentary ethos. Not much happens in the film, which leaves room for nuance and detail to tell the (non-)story: Someone unplugs someone else’s caravan from the electrical panel in the trailer park, neighbors threaten one another, xenophobic remarks are made (something about Romanians coming to Italy to be in the mafia), and Tairo and his neighbors try to figure out why anything that rolls down a nearby slanted road—cars, bottles, or spilled water—rolls up instead of down. But the film’s penchant toward observation veers progressively, and awkwardly, toward fiction.
As such, the pleasure of witnessing the everyday life of a circus performer in a world where circuses are dying faster than their beasts is replaced by an all-too-evident need to sequence Tairo’s moments into a clear journey. The traditional storyline robs the characters of their spontaneity, as the captivating smallness of everyday life is replaced with an inconsequential drama. We can almost hear the directors’ feeding lines to their actors.
The need to impose a story into characters who’re interesting enough simply being themselves with no specific task to accomplish is, of course, a common mistake. Here the miscalculation is all the more evident because co-directors Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel grant themselves the luxury of strangeness and bypass the need for justifying what they capture initially, only to force an overtly visible through line that feels foreign from the start.