'The Great Mystical Circus' ('O Grande Circo Mistico'): Film Review | Cannes 2018

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
100 years of silliness.

Vincent Cassel marries a circus owner in Brazilian filmmaker Carlos Diegues' chronicle spanning five generations.

Veteran director Carlos Diegues (Ganga Zumba, Bye Bye Brazil), one of Brazil's influential Cinema Novo filmmakers, returns behind the camera after more than a decade of producing with an ambitious but failed attempt at magical realism. The Great Mystical Circus (O Grande Circo Mistico) spans five generations of a family of circus owners, tracing them from heyday to Mayday, when the big top is in shreds and the last owner is reduced to prostituting her daughters. The disjointed storytelling and barely there characters make it hard to enjoy these tall tales or the small, nasty role played by a dastardly Vincent Cassel. The film’s pervasive eroticism and nudity may raise interest in some quarters.

One wonders what interested Diegues in this disconnected fluff. The answer is probably the source material, which goes all the way back to the poem "Circus," written by Jorge de Lima, a political activist of the 1920s and '30s. It was adapted into a musical in the '80s by renowned musicians Chico Buarque and Edu Lobo, whose very listenable songs also enliven the film.

Stretching from 1910 to the 21st century, the history of the Knieps family is filled with outsiders and miscreants, addicts and even a murderer. Still, the circus is a world on to itself, whose freewheeling denizens are united by their oddities and differences. But if the point is to show them as a liberated alternative to conventional materialism, Threepenny Opera-style, it is largely lost in the film adaptation.

The circus at the heart of the story originates at the turn of the 20th century, when handsome young Frederic Knieps (Rafael Lozano), son of a distinguished doctor and (as he learns later) an empress in exile, becomes enamored of an uninhibited young contortionist (Bruna Linzmeyer). He buys her a circus, but the next thing you know, she dies in the ring giving birth to their daughter, Charlotte (Marina Provenzzano). In the following scene, Charlotte is a gawky teenage girl spying on the circus mime, a French lady-killer named Jean-Paul (Cassel), who obliges her by pulling down his pants and flashing a large penis. Cut to an elephant raising its trunk.

This is unsettling enough, but he soon has her in bed, where he painfully takes her virginity. Cut to their young offspring, Clara and Oto. Unaffectionate and unfaithful, Jean-Paul lights out with all their cash, leaving Charlotte to run the circus with the young master of ceremonies, Celavi (from his shrugged motto, "C’est la vie!"). The magical thing about the MC, played by a youthful Jesuita Barbosa, is that he never, ever ages, meaning that he's the eyewitness to 100 years of family history over the course of the film.

Oto inherits the circus, along with his ancestors' dim wits; we find him wandering aimlessly around bars wearing his sister's red dress. This is where he picks up a tortured torch singer who gives birth to the weirdest member of the family yet, Margarete (Mariana Ximenes). She grows into a gifted trapeze artist, but her only desire is to leave the circus and enter a convent. Yet her destiny is to produce twin beauties (Louise and Amanda Britto), who are the most special artistes of all.

Though it sounds like this parade of way-out characters could make a nice Wes Anderson mashup along the lines of Grand Budapest Hotel, they come and go too quickly to leave much impression. Above all, there is no one to anchor the story beyond the ageless, winking Célavi, and no recognizable theme beyond the fleeting quality of time.

Production companies: Luz Magica Producoes, Fado Filmes, Milonga Productions, Globo Filmes, Riofilme
Cast: Jesuíta Barbosa, Bruna Linzmeyer, Vincent Cassel, Catherine Mouchet, Mariana Ximenes, David Ogrodnik, Rafael Lozano, Marina Provenzzano
Director: Carlos Diegues
Screenwriters: Carlos Diegues, George Moura, based on a poem by Jorge de Lima
Producer: Renata Almeida Magalhaes
Director of photography: Gustavo Hadba
Production design: Artur Pinheiro
Editor: Daniel Garcia, Mair Tavares
Music: Chico Buarque, Edu Lobo
World sales: Latido Films

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (out of competition)
105 minutes