‘The Circus Dynasty’ ('Cirkusdynastiet'): Hot Docs Review

The Circus Dynasty Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Clutch PR

The Circus Dynasty Still - H 2015

The acrobatics are mesmerizing, but this doc takes a tumble when it comes to storytelling 

This Danish-made documentary about two of Europe's most eminent circus families lifts the tent flap on life in the big top

Taking a look at the sweat beneath the spangled leotards and the stress under the smiles, Danish-made documentary The Circus Dynasty meets two big-top families whose hopes for the future are pinned on the romantic alliance between their talented children. Although director Anders Riis-Hansen is proficient at showing the performers' dedication to their art and the continuing allure of this ancient art form, as a reality drama the doc delivers less insight than viewers might expect, especially about the core duo's fragile relationship. The end result is a decorative, poignant but slightly superficial work that probably won't drive its caravan far beyond the festival circuit and specialist TV outlets.

At the heart of the story are two families whose roots in circus life go back generations. The Copenhagen-based Berdino family, led by patriarch Benny Berdino, own the Arena Cirkus, a troupe that started out with just one trailer and now stretches to several, with dozens of performers, animals, and roustabouts working on the payroll. Benny hopes his grandson Patrick Berdino, a young man in his early 20s with an only vaguely alluded to tempestuous past, will take over the reins eventually as ringmaster and general manager.

A family within the Arena family, the German-speaking Casselly clan are the award-winning stars of the show. Rene, a tumbler and animal trainer and his performer wife Alexia have been training their two children Merrylu and adolescent Rene Jr, to be topliners pretty much since birth. The two siblings haven nearly perfected – the occasional stumbles add drama – a tricky feat in which one of the circus' four African elephants launches Rene from a springboard into the air to land on Merrylu's shoulders.

Meanwhile, having known each other as friends and sometimes enemies since childhood, Merrylu and Patrick have recently become a couple, set up a mobile home together and, most importantly, launched an act in which they perform an acrobatic horseback-borne pas de deux. The older generation is thrilled, seeing the kids' relationship as a cement for their dynastic alliance. So confident are they, in fact, about a future centered around Merrylu and Patrick, it's hinted that chances are passed up when Kenneth Feld, the big boss of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, comes talent scouting to the show.

Alas, Merrylu and Patrick's young love is no more robust than most other romances between kids their age, and the two break up. The youngsters' parents and grandfather seem arguably more devastated by the split than the Merrylu and Patrick, and one can't help wondering how much the breach affected – and was affected by – the filmmaking process itself. It certainly seems odd that so little is revealed about what went wrong. Hints are dropped about Merrylu's supposed flirting with other men and Patrick's violent temper, which rather jars with the hearts-and-flowers display of happiness in the first part of the film. A sense starts to grow that either the doc crew missed something crucial in the coverage, or we're not being told everything, perhaps out of respect for the subjects' privacy and dignity. Whatever the cause, the haziness makes it harder to fully sympathize with their plight or to even understand what the greater repercussions will be for the families and the circus.

Elsewhere, some viewers might feel frustrated that so many questions about the circus life remain unaddressed. For instance, what have the young performers had to forego to attain that level of skill? What sort of logistics are required to keep whole show on the road? And how does such a traditional troupe which still – controversially, for some - uses animals retain an audience that may have come to expect more pyrotechnics and contemporary styling in the wake of acts like Cirque du Soleil?  

Apart from these and other unanswered questions, the film remains an affectionate and prettily filmed tribute to the subjects' skills, amply demonstrated in many close-up rehearsal scenes and daintily assembled performance montages. Jonas Colstrup's tinkling, piano-led music hits the sweet spot on the cusp between melancholy and uplift and helps paper over the story's cracks and fissures, as does the soaring cinematography credited to director Riis-Hansen, Lars Skree and Anders Lofstedt.

Production companies: A Hansen & Pedersen Film og Fjernsyn presentation, with the support from Nordisk Film & TV Fond, DFI in collaboration with TV2 Danmark, SVT, NRK
With: Patrick Berdino, Merrylu Casselly, Benny Berdino, Hanna Berdino, Rene Casselly, Alexia Casselly, Jackie Berdino, Laura Berdino, Rene Casselly Jr., Kenneth Feld
Director/screenwriter:Anders Riis-Hansen
Producer: Malene Flindt Pedersen
Directors of photography: Anders Riis-Hansen, Lars Skree, Anders Lofstedt
Editors: Lars Therkelsen, Line Schou Hillerbrand
Composer: Jonas Colstrup
Sales: CAT & Docs

No rating, 93 minutes