Mister Universo (Tizza Covi and Ranier Frimmel, 2016): Austria | Italy

Reviewed By Vincenzo Muia at 2016 AFI Film Festival.


    Mister Universo marks the third docudrama by tandem directors Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel who provide introspect into a marginalized sect within Italian culture, the gypsy circus. In relation to their two previous films sharing parallel subject matter, Babooshka (2005) and La Pivellina (2009), skillful c0-director/cinematographer Ranier Frimmel fuses elements of observational documentary mode along with fictional drama to capture a gritty, charming, and intriguing tale provided by a fixated camera which follows protagonist Tairo (Tairo Caroli), a 20 year-old big cat tamer whose increasing misfortune leads him on a journey of self-discovery.

Tairo, introduced to the viewer and a young lion tamer who wields a gentle approach to directing his big cats, projects an increasing sense of anxiety due to an aging lion unwilling to perform, leaving his dwindling pride to four lions. His self-reflective, uncertain future as a lion tamer is further compounded by his underlying affinity for co-worker/contortionist Wendy (Wendy Weber). When a tiff with other circus staff leads to the ransacking and theft of Tairo’s living quarters, his personal good luck charm, a horse-shoe shaped piece of bent iron, given to him as a young boy by Arthur Robin (the first man of color to win the Mr. Universe bodybuilding championship 1957), is missing. With increasing irritability amongst his cats and without his lucky charm, Tairo is unwilling to continue performing until he tracks down Arthur in hopes of bending a new piece for him to restore his fortunes. The second act is comprised of Tairo’s journey from Rome further north on his quest to reacquaint with Mr. Robin in the hopes of restoring his compromised dignity with a piece of newly bent iron. The journey leads to his discovery of his lionesque inner strength and determination under the direction of the aging strongman, much as Tairo’s troupe of lions require his. The sudden cut in the third act permits the viewer to interpret the fates of Tairo, Wendy, and the travelling show and craft the resolution of the film.

Directors Cozzi and Frimmel provide an unassuming and sweet approach to humanize the zingeri, traveling gypsies often viewed as subservient within European culture. Both directors infuse elements of Italian Neorealism in the film consisting of outdoor shooting, non-professional actors, and a gritty 16mm stock which director Frimmel addresses in the post film Q & A as “the last roll of a particular 16mm film” to exist. The use of this stock according to Frimmel, “is dedicated to the struggles of those affected by the digitized industry”.  The contrasting theme of modern vs old is symbolic of the changing landscape of Europe, in which globalization threatens the cultures of antiquity.

An excellent function of film is to acquire a new perspective about the world we occupy and if you enjoy “slice of life” films which will leave you with positively brimming of your environment outside of the theater, my recommendation is Mr. Universo.



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