In 1952 Czechoslovakia, circus man Karel Cernik struggles to keep his beloved Cirkus Cernik together, which belonged to his family before being nationalized by the Communist government. The government allows Cernik to manage the circus, but he grapples with deteriorating conditions in the circus, loss of his workers to the state, and tension with his willful daughter Tereza, and his young second wife Zama, whom everyone suspects of being unfaithful. Cernik wants to end a budding romance between Tereza and roustabout Joe Vosdek, who has been with the circus for only a year.

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