The filmmaking team of Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel concoct fictional narratives around the real lives and professions of the nonactors with whom they work. This is an unusual formula but not an entirely novel one. While other examples of this method, or some variant of it, have yielded films that come off as condescending or creepily exploitative, Ms. Covi and Mr. Frimmel’s “Mister Universo” is a disarming and humane picture, an unexpected delight.
Tairo Caroli is a young man who’s an animal tamer at a down-at-the-heels circus touring the outskirts of Rome. One of his big cats, Rambo, has just died; a couple of the others are indisposed. He’s a bit of a knucklehead, picking little fights with colleagues, and one of these battles escalates. Tairo’s good luck charm, a piece of iron that the 1957 Mister Universe and circus strongman Arthur Robin bent for Tairo when he was a boy, gets lost or stolen in an ensuing scrape. Downhearted and scared, Tairo takes to the road in search of Mr. Robin while Wendy, the circus’s contortionist, seeks a variety of mild occult solutions to Tairo’s seeming streak of bad luck.
On his trip, shot in a documentary style that manages to generate real suspense, he catches up with friends and family, mostly circus folk too. One of them is caring for an aging chimpanzee named Lola, a showbiz vet who has a central role in Dario Argento’s 1985 horror thriller “Phenomena.” Like Tairo, the animal represents a way of life that’s going out with the tide of the postmodern. The conclusion is worth not giving away, but it’s heartwarming without being cloying.
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