04/07/2011 12:18 pm ET Updated Jun 07, 2011

Circo : The Trials of an Itinerant Mexican Circus

The circus haunts our subconscious like some kind of childhood bestiary - filled with fantastical creatures and explosions, danger and allure - all setting our understanding of commonplace reality on its ear. Everything that our older, skeptical selves reject as artifice and tawdry manipulation, our childhood selves accept with glassy-eyed awe. It is the world of magical unrealism, a place adults don't really belong.

Aaron Schock's new documentary Circo, which follows a year with one small traveling circus in Mexico, is a welcome addition to the world of circus cinema. For the circus, the ultimate live spectacle, has been an irresistible subject for film spectacle from the beginning. All of the elements of the circus story are present in Charlie Chaplin's Circus from 1928 - the fantasy within the performance ring, the hard life of the actual performers, both human and animal. This is highlighted especially in Todd Browning's Freaks - which used real circus freaks (people with birth defects or disabilities that others would pay to gawk at) to capture a humanizing, critical look at the moral strangeness of the circus phenomenon. Perhaps the most powerful, grittily realistic portraits of circus life in fiction film are La Strada by Federico Fellini and Bye Bye Brasil by Carlos Diegues. Circus audiences are always torn: fascinated by the outrageous and the strange, superior to the unsavory, and unable to resist the voyeurism of the experience.

And the list goes on and on, including last year's huge (six hour) PBS documentary on New York's Big Apple circus. But that does not come close to the poignancy and insight captured by the documentary Circo in a brief, 75-minute portrait of the Ponce family's itinerant performance troupe, which has traveled throughout Mexico since the 19th Century. The film brings us an amazing circus and an insightful perspective on Mexico. Instead of a stereotypical story of back-lot criminals, Circo shows us the basic hardscrabble life of the family: Tino Ponce, his wife Ivonne, their four children, a niece, and their parents Don Gilberto and Doña Lupe. What you feel most powerfully, as often in taking a close look at Mexico, is the hard work, constant work, intensive work that the family must do to drive, set up, perform, break down, and drive again. Their shows are not on established carnival grounds. No, they are on the empty lot behind the gas station, the abandoned field, or wherever else they can pull up, unload the unwieldy tents, and wrestle the equipment into place. Then they must make a tape announcement, drive around town advertising the upcoming show through the loudspeakers, and give away some tickets to children in order to pull their parents and family members in. Perhaps a more appropriate reference point for Circo would not be the tradition of circus films but instead Mexican films such as Buñuel's Los Olvidados

When the performance begins, the audience is a few hundred local workers, themselves tired and dirty from a day of work, and their children. The Ponces bring out their specialties, the contortionist, rope walking, trapeze, the clown, and the "globe of death," a small metal cage in which one family member roars around on a small motorcycle. A raggedy collection of "wild" animals, clearly mistreated and suffering along with the family, make up the rest of the show. The oldest son, Cascaras, is of course considered the romantic and mysterious hero by local women in the small towns but his real life is far from the illusion.

In many ways, it seems, Circo is a metaphor for the struggling life of Mexico today. They are beset by debt (paying for the truck, equipment), misfortune (the llama suddenly dies for no reason they can understand), and internal bickering. Like Mexico itself, the Ponce family is regularly cast out on the road, always looking for the next spot to wrest a meal or a buck from the uncaring landscape. The elders of the Ponce family insist that the traditions be carried on. A son and two daughters have already left the life for the strange new world of being settled, in one pueblo, in one house. Tino is determined to be the good son, to carry on. But his wife Ivonne has her doubts - about the cruelty the children suffer in working endless hours, in getting no education.

Like all good documentaries, it allows us insight to a corner of our world that we had not really seen or known about. But it also implicates us, makes us wonder about our role - in the global economy, in the culture of othering, in the blindness to our neighbors - in the painful tale that unfolds. Life in the circus is beautiful and incredibly tough. This is a moving and insightful film, so step right up and take a look at yourself.