'Mister Universo': Locarno Review

Locarno Festival Mister Universo Publicity Still H 2016
Festival del film Locarno

The latest docu-fiction portrait set in the circus world from Italo-Austrian documentarians Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel ('La Pivellina') looks at a young lion tamer in search of the first black Mister Universe.

A young Italian lion tamer goes in search of the hulking man who gave him a talisman years earlier in Mister Universo, the latest docu-fiction hybrid featuring Italian circus performers from Italo-Austrian filmmaking duo Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel. For audiences who have seen the directors’ previous films — most notably The Shine of Day and La Pivellina — this will be an overly familiar affair in which the documentary aspects of the film again prove to be more interesting than the pair’s shaky hold on their fictional overlay.

That said, newcomers to the universe of Covi and Frimmel, who not only helmed but between themselves again did everything from the sound to the camera and editing, might be able to overlook the jerry-rigged nature of the narrative and be touched by the authentic-feeling characters. Though this Mister won a special jury mention at the recent Locarno fest, it's unlikely to receive universal acclaim and seems destined for a modest spin on the festival circuit.

Tairo Caroli was seen as a 13-year-old supporting character in 2009’s La Pivellina and has now, around 20, become a lion tamer in the small circus he’s been traveling with since he was a kid. He might be young and full of energy, but most of the circus’s animals are old and tired, with some of them actually sick or dying. Though it is not explicitly stated, the circus world in general and the animal-trainer profession in particular are, of course, also dying, which gives the non-fiction footage of Caroli working with his animals an added tragic dimension.

The lion tamer with the untamed black curls is friends with his blonde peer, Wendy Weber, an impressively lissome acrobat who’s been performing since she was five. She’s also incredibly superstitious, and her superstition rubs off on Tairo when his talisman goes missing after a petty fight with some neighbors which results in the tamer refusing to go into the cage with his irritable animals. The young man's horseshoe-shaped amulet was bent by Arthur Robin from a straight iron bar when Caroli was a kid and the film’s second half sees the protagonist go in search of the former Mister Universe — the Guadeloupan-French Robin won the 1957 title and was the first man of color to do so — in the hope he can bend him a new lucky charm.

When Robin, who’s now 87, finally makes an appearance, there’s a welcome jolt of energy as he’s a fascinating subject in his own right. But the 90-minute film is almost over when Caroli finally finds him, making him almost an afterthought. And though he used to work in the circus in the past, his life and concerns seem too far removed from Tairo’s to bring their two worlds together smoothly.

More generally speaking, there is a problem of pacing and focus. The feature’s first half is a meandering, documentary-like sketch of Caroli’s life in the circus before his iron amulet goes missing. After it disappears, it looks like the hunt for Robin might give the proceedings a sense of direction but for much too long, the search doesn’t do much more than provide an excuse for Tairo to visit relatives in various Italian places to ask them about Robin’s possible whereabouts while adding little else in terms of either character insight or narrative meat.  

Covi, who edited the film and is credited with writing the screenplay, is also a little too much in love with a handful of metaphors that feel very heavy-handed. They include a mysterious mountain, just south of Rome, where water seems to run uphill and a moment in which Wendy puts a candle that’s supposed to ward off the evil eye into a brook and it seems to float away against the current. In a film less loose-limbed and lacking in narrative incident, these might have been small metaphorical touches that helped underline the characters’ unusual trajectories but here, since not much else happens, these moments are way too in-your-face to be believable in a semi-documentary framework.

Like their previous collaborations, Frimmel again shot this modestly mounted feature on film and their latest is dedicated to “people who lost their job caused by the digitization of the cinema industry." The fact that this miniature of circus life was shot on film and both seem to be going the way of the dodo at least seems like an appropriate pairing of form and content.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival
Production company: Vento Film
Cast: Tairo Caroli, Wendy Weber, Arthur Robin
Directors: Tizza Covi, Rainer Frimmel
Screenplay: Tizza Covi
Producer: Rainer Frimmel
Director of photography: Rainer Frimmel
Editor: Tizza Covi
Sales: Be for Films

Not rated, 90 minutes