Back in my salad days, when I worked as a professional actor, I was cast in a children’s play—I think it was called The Imaginators. I opened the show with a page-long monologue that was meant to be delivered as goofily and broadly as possible. It always got the kids laughing and set a good tone for the rest of the performance. Except one day… I got two lines into the speech and some jerky kindergartener shouted at the top of his lungs, “THIS IS NOT FUNNY.”
What brought this episode to mind? Simply a brief shot in Selton Mello’s O Palhaço (The Clown). A father/son clown duo is opening a circus performance in a tiny Brazilian village; their shtick is lively and engaging, and everyone in the tent is cheering or chuckling. Ah, but then there is this ever-so-brief shot of a sulky child, sitting with his arms crossed, mopey. There’s always gonna be one, no matter how hard you try.
Fleeting details such as this are liberally peppered throughout Mello’s magical film—a movie of inexhaustible visual inventiveness, gloriously precise comic timing, and dryly droll set-ups that ape Wes Anderson in all the best ways. Actually, Selton Mello’s style could best be described as the result of some miraculous alchemy mixing Anderson, Jeunet, and Fellini.
Benjamim (played by Selton Mello), one half of the father/son pair who serve as emcees for the Circo Esperança, is a very melancholy clown. He takes no pleasure as a member of the traveling circus, instead longing for a stationary home, official ID papers, and an electric fan. Every village they visit brings him monotony: the same tired jokes, the same pandering to the local mayors, the same routines and choreographed antics. Plus, he’s suffering a bit of a crisis, and doesn’t think he’s a worthy performer any longer.
Will Benjamim leave the circus? Is life better among the “normal people,” with their stable jobs, steady income, and, most importantly, top-of-the-line electric fans? Well, this plot isn’t the most important thing here, and really only develops in the second half of the film. The first half is all about introducing us to the world of the Circo Esperança, where life behind the stage seems as surreal as performance on it. An incredibly big-busted woman snaps her bra during her act, and poor Benjamim must ask around for a replacement garment. A mayor demands his exceedingly talentless child be allowed to perform, creating a majorly awkward moment in front of dozens of paying customers. A peculiar bar fight lands the troupe in front of a feline-loving judge. Each of these set ups pay off in hilarious, perfectly-crafted ways.
The dialogue is also filled with wry humor. At one point, one of the trucks in the circus’s caravan breaks down, leading to this exchange between Benjamim and a greasy mechanic:
“Can you help us out?”
“I can… tomorrow.”
“I don’t work on Saturdays. Those are my principles. But I have others…”
“Are you talking about money?”
“Mental agility is something I admire!”
If released in America, The Clown would surely warrant an Oscar nomination for its stunning cinematography. Adrian Tejido utilizes a glossy, golden palette, reminiscent of Anthony Dod Mantle’s work in Slumdog Millionaire—but unlike its offensive use in Danny Boyle’s film, using lustrous images to make torture and violence more palatable to the audience, here it is employed to accentuate and solidify the delightful world of the Circo Esperança. Kika Lopes’s costumes also deserve mention, being wonderfully detailed and subtly expressionistic.
It’s such a shame that The Clown has no U.S. distributor, and isn’t likely to get one any time soon, for it is one of 2012’s great treasures. It is both heart-warming and crowd-pleasing—two terms that usually make my eyes roll. But Selton Mello earns every emotion, by never pushing or manipulating too much. It’s the kind of film the Academy usually eats right up, and here I would be in complete agreement.
Bottom Line: If this magical confection of a film ever plays anywhere remotely near you, drop everything and see it.
For more information about this year’s foreign film submissions, be sure to check out Film Misery’s detailed webpage.