By Charlie David Page
5th June 2017

The phrase "run away and join the circus" has always struck me as odd. Perhaps that's because I'm a child of the 80s and and by this time the prestige and reputation of this and many other pastimes - air travel, television, door-to-door salesmen - had already been tarnished. These days, circuses are being forced to evolve - à la Cirque du Soleil - or die out. 'Mister Universo' takes us inside the world of the big top, but concerns itself more with tradition and the people who call it home.

Tairo comes from a family of circus performers, and currently resides with one travelling show as the lion tamer. The problem is, the circus' animals are old and tired, and Tairo is becoming disillusioned with his work, yet has no other skills. His close friend Wendy is an impressively limber acrobat, but back problems are certain to cut her career short sooner or later. As things go from bad to worse, an iron amulet Tairo considers a good luck charm is stolen, and he embarks on a mission to track down the former Mister Universe and fellow circus performer who bent the solid bar for him when he was just a kid.


The concept itself is a little superficial, but that's actually not the concern of this film. With 'Mister Universo', Italo-Austrian filmmaking duo Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel have crafted their fourth film set in the circus, but in much broader terms, their work aims to capture art forms which are dying out. They themselves prefer to shoot on film than digital, their own personal version of this quandary. As such, this and their previous works try to embrace a genuineness and integrity, and so practically everyone you see in this film is a genuine circus performer. It's a bizarre melding of fiction and documentary, with Tairo's road trip introducing us to many actual members of his family, and, inevitably, the real former Mister Universe.

Further playing up this realistic trope is the handheld, documentary-style camerawork. It really blurs the line as to what is authentic interaction and staged, particularly the scenes with Tairo's family, with brim with a natural element. It does, however, make it difficult to judge the acting of the film, as it's essentially impossible to know what is acting and what is real life. Tairo is an intriguing character, barely an adult yet with substantial responsibility, with occasional outbursts or moments of childlike amusement. On the other hand, Wendy is robust and grounded, with a superstitious nature which plays an important role. Despite her limited screen time, she's actually one of the highlights of the film.

It's a bizarre melding of fiction and documentary, with Tairo's road trip introducing us to many genuine members of his family, and, inevitably, the real former Mister Universe.

While it's interesting to see Tairo's journey through the circus world, and inevitably meet Mister Universe and his effervescent wife, the film sags towards the middle as we're introduced to family member after family member, with little to no story structure or narrative progression. Inevitably, we understand that this career is very much a family affair, but the repetition does err on boredom.

For an industry constantly on the move, so much of circus life is stuck in a time that is no longer relevant to modern society. Although never verbally spoken in the film, Tairo's work is all but extinct, and his generation of lion tamers is likely to be the last. While this is certainly not lamented, it's a comment on the world's drastic evolution, and the fact that this is not the only career which is quickly dying out. It's a shame, as our workforce is computerised and made redundant, that so many more jobs will soon follow course. If nothing else, 'Mister Universo' makes you consider if the pursuit for development is really worthwhile.

Looking for more Sydney Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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