aka Mister Universe
Written by Tizza Covi
Directed by Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel
A pursuit for a lucky charm leads into a quasi-magical realism world with Mister Universo! The last of our SFIFF coverage, this time running over to the San Francisco Alamo Drafthouse for a fun Italian film that I probably wouldn’t have watched on my own if it wasn’t part of a festival and caught my eye in the movie listing. I’m glad it did!
Mister Universo is actually a sort of sequel to 2009’s La Pivellina (Little Girl), Tairo is grown and a lion tamers, now with a quest of his own. Besides the quest we still get an extended view of the family and friends of Tairo as he travels up and down the Italian peninsula, with most people playing themselves (or versions of themselves.) It is a fun slice of life into a culture that there isn’t really much about (except Covi and Frimmel’s other films!)
We begin following Tairo and him preparing for his show, hanging out with his girl Wendy Weber, and generally causing trouble with some of the circus performers he doesn’t like. These arguments have escalated to pranks, and Tairo soon finds all his stuff has gone missing, scattered around the park the circus is staying at. Tairo doesn’t have much and finds many items quickly, but there is one item that has completely disappeared, and it is important to him. An iron bar bent by a strong man when Tairo was a child, his lucky charm that he needs to touch before every performance.
Wendy is way more superstitious than Tairo, she is into charms, fortune tellers, putting candles in streams to remove bad luck/the evil eye. She is a contortionist bends her body in much the same way that the iron bar was bent. Tairo knows her interests and even takes her to one of those hills that goes down but is also going up (if you’ve been to one of them you know what I am talking about) for some neat scenes. He does find plenty of time to good-naturedly harass her little dog, Panico. While Tairo dismisses Wendy’s superstitions as nonsense, he has superstitions of his own and soon is off on a search to find the strongman so he will bend him another bar.
The bar was bent by Arthur Robin, Mr. Universe 1957, the first black Mr. Universe and also called Black Hercules. As far as I can tell he didn’t make any movie appearances. He does eventually appear in Mister Universo, so I guess he did end up in movies after all! Taizo’s journey lets him visit all sorts of relatives, including his parents, grandmother, cousins, brother, and other circus friends. The interactions with the performers and with the circus culture and families are the film, everyone knows everyone in a roundabout way, having worked with them long ago at some earlier job. Taizo’s big cats are aged and obviously overweight, they have health problems just from being so old, and one passed on earlier but there is no money for replacement animals. It’s a totally obvious metaphor for the whole circus industry aging out and fading away. We see it in the family members who have moved out of the circus life and are doing other things. Even Mister Universe himself is a shadow of his former self, though he still looks amazing for his age!