'The Circus: Down the Road': Film Review

Mildly endearing, but not the best point of entry.
8/9/2019

The Camillo family didn't just drop everything and leave with the circus, they made a movie about the life.

When he was 4 years old, Seth Camillo's parents took him to the circus, had an unlikely conversation with the guy who ran it and wound up joining the caravan off and on for decades. As a grown-up, Camillo went to film school, graduated and decided to go back on the circuit, this time with cameras. That it took him over 15 years to produce The Circus: Down the Road, his filmmaking debut, might say something about his dedication to the project, and one does get the impression it would've faded into nothing if current trends hadn't made circuses an endangered species. As things stand, personal perspective brings something to this rudimentary documentary, but not nearly enough to help it compete with more polished portraits of big-top razzle-dazzle.

Beginning the production in 2002, Seth is joined as director by his mother Barbara, an amateur artist whose first contribution to the project — a very out-of-focus interview with her son — don't bode well. (Seth tells us she attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop late in life, but anything she might've picked up there about storytelling structure didn't make its way into the film.) Seth and Barbara pile in a van (presumably with Victor, Seth's father and the film's producer) and hook up with their old friends in Carson & Barnes, reportedly the biggest circus left in America.

We soon meet a sixth-generation acrobat, a charming 7-year-old named Franchesca Cavallini, and see how the doc might benefit from its drawn-out production: Franchesca is 17 in the next scene, a veteran trapeze artist, and the possibility of a Seven Up-like, longitudinal look at circus life, amplified by the filmmakers' friendships with their subjects, could compensate for the lack of production value. But the film proves unable to dig deep into its characters for the most part, and while we meet other dynasties like the Cavallinis here, their histories never really click into place.

We hang out with Lance Ramos, who works in a cage with 14 white tigers, and hear how he punched his way through fear after his inevitable first injury. We watch a new hire who has just been put in charge of giant snakes, and is proving game despite his lifelong distaste for things that slither. Then there's Armando Loyal, a ninth-generation bareback rider descended from a man who wowed Napoleon with his prowess. But these are anecdotes, not involving stories.

Most of the interviews circle around a couple of topics: the physical sacrifices required of circus cast and crew, who work nine months a year with no days off; the sense of family that develops in that environment; and the dedication performers have to a way of life that might soon come to an end. (The doc glancingly mentions some of the threats to circuses — other forms of entertainment, changing attitudes about the treatment of animals — but offers no follow-up.)

Hit-or-miss cinematography contains only enough pretty images of big-top action to make one wonder how so many mediocre or crummy ones made the cut; and while we see a couple of nice drawings Barbara has made of circus performers in the past, the animation she does for the film is unappealingly crude. Ultimately, Seth's promise to show us "the unseen world of the circus" is only very slightly fulfilled, and viewers with any nostalgia for the subject will likely yearn for a more professional vision, whether it ventures behind the scenes or not.

Production company: Ring 5 Productions
Directors-directors of photography: Seth Camillo, Barbara Camillo
Producers: Victor Camillo
Editor-composer: Seth Camillo

97 minutes