Family Circus

Nick Pinkerton on Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel’s Mister Universo

Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel, Mister Universo, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 90 minutes. Tairo (Tairo Caroli).

TIZZA COVI AND RAINER FRIMMEL’S MISTER UNIVERSO, a simple, modestly scaled road movie made with delicacy and feeling, centers on the quite self-centered Tairo Caroli, a lion tamer in a small Italian circus who is in the habit of having his commands followed. We are introduced to Tairo preening in the mirror before a performance—he’s handsome if a little husky in his sequined shirt, still carrying some baby fat. Though Tairo makes his living stepping into a cage with big jungle cats to whom he plays “Daddy,” there is still much of the little boy about him, the tantrum-prone brat who bedevils his enemies with a slingshot.

Though Tairo enjoys mocking “circus people beliefs”—the salt over the shoulder, the greasy pack of Tarot cards—he’s superstitious in his own way, too. He has a prized lucky charm, an iron bar that was bent for him by the Guadeloupean French bodybuilder Arthur Robin, a 1957 Mister Universe turned circus strongman. When Tairo’s charm disappears one day, he discovers he can’t work without it—so he sets out to find Robin and have it replaced, a mission that will have him crisscrossing Italy.

Tairo can’t afford much more bad luck, nor can his troupe—Mister Universo arrives in the United States shortly after the Ringling Bros. circus train rolled out of the station for the last time, after 146 years, and throughout, the film gives a sense of the entire enterprise being on the precipice. We see the director of Tairo’s circus complaining of impending bankruptcy. Tairo has recently lost Rambo, one of his tigers, to stomach cancer, and bemoans the impossibility of doing his act with only four animals. Wendy, the redheaded contortionist who Tairo courts, complains that she’ll have to switch jobs because of back problems. Covi and Frimmel are describing the prospects of modern circus folk, but their film could be about any struggling show-biz concern. The milieu of the small circus is one which filmmakers—especially Europeans—have historically turned to reflect on their own practice, Jacques Rivette’s final film, 2009’s Around a Small Mountain, being a superlative example. That a direct relationship exists between the fate of the circus and that of the long-beleaguered Italian cinema is clear when Tairo pays a visit to his mother and finds his stepfather going over a script with a forty-year-old trained chimpanzee who boasts screen credits for Federico Fellini and Dario Argento—names which haven’t recently been equaled for international fame.

Covi and Frimmel, an Italian and an Austrian, respectively, have been quietly running their own workshop for nearly twenty years, collaborating on documentary and fiction projects—though the delineation between the two is quite deliberately muddied. Mister Universo revisits the circus folk of their 2005 Babooska and 2009 La Pivellina—in fact, some of the same personnel are on hand from both films, including Tairo, who appeared in the latter. As in La Pivellina, the performers work under their own names, doing their real jobs—on YouTube you can find Wendy Weber, who plays Wendy, performing her crazy crabwalks to Britney Spears’s “Toxic” with the Rony Roller Circus of Rome. And while the scenarios have been provided by Covi—she also does sound duties, while Frimmel handles the camera—the dialogue is entirely improvised. Tairo’s travels through Italy, on Robin’s tail, were shot chronologically, and the extended family members who he visits and mooches off are in fact Tairo’s extended family—this may go some way in explaining the general air of relaxation around the banter, free of the anxiety that often afflicts improv. The film’s few ventures into visual metaphor feature variations on the image of running upstream.

Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel, Mister Universo, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 90 minutes. Wendy (Wendy Weber).

The connection that Covi and Frimmel have to the circus people is long and profound—their first work together was doing photographic surveys of small circuses, and they have kept acquaintances from these tours in the interceding years, including one with Robin, who here appears in his first film at age eighty-eight, a figure of effortless gravity, at once imposing and clearly, affectingly slowed by inevitable age. In their evident respect for their subjects, the intimacy with which they capture them, and in their docufiction approach, Covi and Frimmel might be considered alongside the Italian American Roberto Minervini. But while Minervini, in his excellent The Other Side (2015), works in a mode of willful social significance, capturing the prevalent pastimes and attitudes of Duck Dynasty America, Covi and Frimmel are decidedly minor-key artists, betting heavily on the intrinsic charm of their stars to carry their work. I suspect that they aren’t better known because, based on a limited sample, their movies fall somewhat awkwardly between the established poles that dominate film culture—their style is rough-edged, observational, and generally in the neo-neorealist tradition of the “art film,” but their appeal is mostly human and emotional, something that the sophistos tend to recoil from when not couched in terms of condescending pity.

Mister Universo is largely dedicated to observing Tairo’s off-the-cuff behavior, revealing different facets of his prickly, fussy, rather strange personality. He is winningly playful and effortlessly wonderful with children, who he treats as equals. He also is frequently a pain in the ass and, as we see in a moment of conflict with Indian and Romanian coworkers and neighbors, a bit of an Italian chauvinist. His puffed-up ego is transparently a form of self-defense, and makes for an easy target. Though he’s working at a failing show with ailing and aging animals, he persists in carrying himself as though he’s the glamorous Gunther Gebel-Williams reincarnate, a moody, haughty little hothead who soaks up the hospitality that he’s greeted with on his travels as though it were a birthright. This changes perceptibly when he finally locates Robin, whose mere presence seems to compel him to be helpful for the first time in what we’ve seen of his life, returning him to the circus with his balance and confidence restored.

This gives you an idea of the big picture, but the movie is in the fine brushwork. It’s a string of finely rendered domestic vignettes filmed around the circus camp and in a series of Tairo’s house calls, most of which find him raiding a fridge or a cupboard. That Covi and Frimmel are working with accustomed performers skews very much in the duo’s favor, and their star is a natural, relaxed screen presence with an instinct for embroidering scenes with little bits of business, like mocking another performer’s workout barbell reps by doing concentration curls with a puppy.

I suspect it’s little moments like this, or tossed-off folksy phrases, or the uncommented-on sight of someone sauntering through the circus campgrounds wearing a Mickey Mouse costume head, that inspired Covi and Frimmel to make their movie. This, and something else, too. In a pop-culture environment in which a few venerated, bankable superstars dominate the conversation, Mister Universo may be a tribute to the endangered middle-class workaday entertainer: the peripatetic circus performer, the aging bodybuilder, the performing chimp, the one-hit-wonder crooner, or even the film lab worker. Mister Universo carries a dedication to those who have lost their jobs due to digitalization. These are the people that Covi and Frimmel gently recommend to a viewer’s attention in their warm and worthy film, which I recommend to you.

Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel’s Mister Universo has its US theatrical premiere Friday, July 21, at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Covi and Frimmel’s 2014 film The Photographer in Front of the Camera has a special screening at Anthology on Thursday, July 20, at 7 PM and Sunday, July 23, at 9 PM.