The circus isn’t as romantic as it used to be. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey recently closed their tent for the final time after 146 years, the plight of animal performers is much too sad to ignore, and anyone with an affinity for peanuts can go to the ballpark instead. At the margins, though, there’s still a world of acrobats, bearded ladies, and lion tamers trekking from town to town as they eke out an existence at risk of fading away entirely — a world given beautiful expression in “Mister Universo.”
Not since “Big Fish” have we seen this world onscreen in such vivid detail, though Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel’s scope isn’t as grandiose or fantastical as Tim Burton’s. A docudrama that in its early scenes feels like a documentary — the co-directors have a nonfiction background, and the actors are actual carnival performers — the film plays out like a small-scale fairy tale. Disenchanted after his good-luck charm is stolen by a spiteful colleague, 20-year-old Tairo (Tairo Caroli) goes on a quest to find the strongman who gave the “iron amulet” to him in his youth; the lions he tames for a living stay behind.
The eponymous hero is Arthur Robin, who in 1957 actually earned the Mister Universe title. Tairo attended one of Robin’s shows as a five-year-old, where the strongman bent an iron bar into a horseshoe-like shape for his young fan as a keepsake. To Tairo, this man was and is a superhero — a larger-than-life figure whose feats of strength were otherworldly, if not godlike.
The forms of myth making may have changed, but its power hasn’t. What might children awed by one of the last remaining circuses grow up to become?
Tairo is a warm, sympathetic presence, and the best lion tamer this side of Chris Jericho — he has genuine affection for the animals under his care. (Covi and Frimmel don’t deny our obvious desire to look at the animals themselves, who reciprocate Tairo’s affection between performances and have as much personality as their charismatic handler.) He’s as likable a protagonist as you’re likely to see all year, with casual charm and a biting sense of humor. Hidden beneath his quick wit is a deep well of longing, of course: The talisman he cares so much about is something of a MacGuffin, but it’s also a source of comfort he can’t do without.
The grainy cinematography lends the proceedings a ground-level feel; ditto the handheld camerawork and drawn-out banter. “Someday I’ll marry you,” Tairo says as his girlfriend (Wendy Weber), a contortionist, walks away after one of their many easy conversations. It feels like a movie-magic proclamation and the kind of half-serious joke a friend would make; Tairo’s ability to inhabit both modes is part of what makes him so compelling to watch.
Ultimately a road movie, “Mister Universo” has its fair share of roadside attractions and pit stops: an optical illusion of a mountain road that appears to slope uphill and downhill at once; a highly intelligent chimpanzee who, according to her owner, worked with Fellini and Argento. It’s a cliche to say the journey matters more than the destination, but since “Mister Universo” is largely about the power of homespun wisdom, it’s also apropos.
“All the rest is behind me,” Tairo says after ritualistically throwing salt behind his shoulders three times at the behest of his mother. He doesn’t ascribe much meaning to such “circus-people beliefs,” but humors her like the good son he is. Focusing on the road ahead isn’t always easy, but it’s often the only way not to be distracted by what you’ve left behind.
“Mister Universo” is in Italian with English subtitles, and was released July 21 New York.