When the Reality (Almost) Becomes Fiction: "Mister Universo"

in 69th Locarno International Film Festival

by Dragan Rubesa

“The reality becomes fiction,” said one of the non-actors in the brilliant docudrama Communion (Komunia) directed by the Polish director Anna Zamecka, shown in this year’s Locarno Semaine de la Critique. It was one of two Polish films, together with The Sun, the Sun Blinded Me (directed by the artistic couple Anka and Wilhelm Sasnal, dealing among other themes with the idiocy and dangers of Catholic fundamentalism in their country. The same could be said for the opening scenes of Katsuya Tomita’s Bangkok Nites, which recall the Thai segment of Michael Glawogger triptych Whores’ Glory (2011) (Tomita did not just use the same faces of Thai prostitutes in the shop window on Thaniya Road, but deconstructed the scene in which they visit the neighbourhood shrine on their way home from their nightshift).

The latest docudrama from yet another Locarno artistic couple, Tizza Covi and Rainer Fimmel (Mister Universo) walks again on the thin line between a documentary (non-actors, real settings) and narrative constructions, without finding the right equilibrium between these two settings. Like their two previous films, Babooska (2005) and Little Girl (La pivellina) (2009), whose stories were set in a small circus in Roman suburbia, Mister Universo is set in the same places, with the same characters, like some kind of sequel to them. Like Tomita (Bangkok Nites) – who uses the same Glawogger setting as the initial idea of his story in which the real whores meet the Thai (non-)actress Subenja Pongkorn, while US country music roaring in the Seventies from US army bases near Mekong delta is mixed with Lao pop and Luk Thung popular songs – Covi & Fimmel also use the real setting of a dying circus, but with fiction elements, which does not mean that each circus movie is automatically ‘Felliniesque’. Although our beloved character met the old dying chimpanzee during his road odyssey, which appeared in Fellini movie, and was also a partner of Adriano Celentano in a hilarious comedy Bingo Bongo, and was engaged in Dario Argento’s Suspiria.

The character in question is Tairo, his hair covered with tons of grease. In Little Girl, he was almost an adolescent. Now we meet him again. He is seven years older, carrying forward the tradition of his father, who was the lion tamer. But Tarlo’s lions are either old or dying and refuse to eat. In Little Girl, he befriended a couple of circus performers, a redhead Patti and her husband Walter, who found a girl abandoned in a playground and named her Asia (this is ‘La pivellina’ aka ‘breadcrumb’ or ‘Little Girl’ from the title). In Asia’s pocket there was a leaflet on which her mother wrote that she would be back soon. But she never came back. Now Tairo is in search of a black circus artist named Arthur Robin, better known as Mister Universo, the strongest man on earth, who bent him a piece of steel in the form of a horseshoe during his performance, which became his amulet. But his amulet was stolen and he sets off on a slow journey towards Milan suburbia to find Mister Universo, so that he can bend him another horseshoe, in order to re-establish the equilibrium in his life. There is also another parallel search, the one in which Tairo’s girlfriend Wendy – a contortionist with a pain in her back – is involved, who is a contortionist with a pain in her back. As in Little Girl, whose rhythm is slow and reflexive, with improvised dialogue and long silences in the mood of direct cinema, but without mannered touches and complacency, such is Tairo’s road trip in Mister Universo. On this trip, in a brief episode he will meet a redhead Patti, and Walter. We were happy to find out that Asia is still with them. She is now eight years old.

Although the camera is almost invisible, Covi and Frimmel are not preocupied with hiding the narrative mechanisms of the story, which is very compact and linear. We almost feel as though we were pushed in some kind of fairy tale, with Tairo as an Italian version of Dorothy, the circus as Kansas and Mister Universo as the Wizard of Oz, who is the only person able to give him back the thing he lost and remind him that “there is no place like home”. On the other hand, in this dying microcosm of circus, fascinating and sad, they move in a very discrete and non-invasive way, participating in the reunion of Tairo’s family. It’s a film as a slice of life. But it is also a film which is yet more significant proof of the rebirth of Italian documentary school, together with Francesco Rosi’s Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare), Pietro Marcello’s great Lost and Beautiful (Bella e perduta) and almost experimental The Never Ending Factory of the Duomo (L’infinita fabbrica del Duomo) made by yet another great artistic couple, Martina Parenti and Massimo D’Anolfi, which was shown in last years’ Locarno parallel section Signs of Life, while their latest Spira mirabilis will have its world premiere at the Mostra in Venice.

That’s why Covi’s and Frimmel’s film has the strength of simple things, like that piece of steel in the hands of Arthur Robin, the strongest man on earth, who now lives abandoned in the depressive amusement park on the outskirts of Milan with his ex-assistant. Too strong for making horseshoes with his own hands, but still in good shape.

Edited by Amber Wilkinson