“Mister Universo” Is the Summer’s Finest Study of Circus Ennui


The docu-fiction collaborators Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel build their movies out of a symbiotic relationship with their subjects, whom they encourage — by establishing collegial parameters such as improvised dialogue and chronological shooting — to develop characters informed by their very beings. The result is a winningly gentle, low-pressure realism: A typical scene in their latest, Mister Universo, has the Italian lion tamer Tairo Caroli chatting with a close friend, the contortionist Wendy Weber, about the quality of the coffee she’s brought him. (“Nescafé,” she assures him of the cup’s unphenomenal origins.) As Covi and Frimmel catch up here with Tairo — whom the duo first captured, at fourteen, in their 2009 La Pivellina — things are not falling his way. Professionally, he’s grappling with the sad demise of aging animals; personally, he’s feuding with circus-camp neighbors, a conflict that leads to his caravan being looted. Among the items stolen is a precious “iron amulet” bestowed to him, in his childhood years, by Arthur Robin, the real-life Mr. Universe of 1957. At an existential loss, Tairo embarks on a half-baked road trip — bouncing among uncles, cousins, and colleagues — in search of Robin. His endeavor is one not of major strife but of minor flashes of magic: We meet a chimpanzee who has worked with Fellini and Argento and, in another winsome detour, encounter an inexplicable downhill road, located south of Rome, on which objects travel uphill. A stranger in a suit, upon pouring a chemical on the concrete and seeing the liquid resist the downhill slant, observes, “This is an anti-gravity problem” — a simultaneously correct and dumbfounding comment that somehow epitomizes Covi and Frimmel’s brand of unforced enchantment.

Mister Universo
Directed by Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel
Opens July 21, Anthology Film Archives