Spain, 1939. The Spanish Civil War rages. Two clowns perform for a crowd of children in dark circus tent. Planes roar overhead. The latest explosions are too close for comfort, but the show must go on. In storms a military commander, demanding that every able-bodied man accompany him at once to join the battle against Franco’s rebels. One clown refuses and is beaten to the ground. The other complies. With no time to change clothes or remove make-up, the clown and his circus compatriots line up amongst the decimated soldiers. They run out of rifles and the clown is given only a machete. He begs his superior officer to change his clothes and remove his make-up. The officer laughs and tells him that he’s a clown with a machete…he’s going to scare the hell out of the enemy.
The first ten minutes of Alex de la Iglesia’s The Last Circus (or Ballad of the Sad Trumpet as it seems to be known everywhere else) are so weird and compelling that you can be forgiven for not thinking the film will find a way to top this sequence, which concludes with the clown leading a futile military charge in a war scene that would be hilarious if it wasn’t so gruesome. The fact that The Last Circus not only lives up to this opening, but tops it ten times over is proof that it’s something special.
It’s my favorite film of Fantastic Fest and the big frontrunner for my favorite film of 2010.
The bulk of the story takes place years later, following the son of the drafted clown in the opening scenes. Javier (Carlos Areces) has followed in his father’s footsteps, finally landing a job as the “sad clown” in a popular circus, performing alongside Sergio (Antonio de la Torre). Sergio is a renowned clown; he loves children and lives only to make them laugh. He’s good looking, charming and a far cry from the chubby, sky sad sack that is Javier. He’s also a violent, self-obsessed sociopath, which Javier will soon learn the hard way.
And then there’s the gorgeous trapeze artist, Natalia (the gorgeous Carolina Bang). Javier is madly in love with her, but she’s with Sergio, who holds on to her with a combination of late night drunken terror and charming morning apologies. Javier and Natalia strike up a secret relationship that rides the fine line between friendship and romance; she likes him because he’s a sweet man, the total opposite of Sergio while he likes her because she may very well be the first woman to ever give him the time of day.
Of course Sergio finds out. Of course there is conflict. Of course this conflict escalates into an operatic struggle that may be an ultraviolet, hilarious and disturbing metaphor for life in post-Franco Spain.
That’s where I’m drawing a slight blank on The Last Circus. On the surface, it’s an amazing blend of dark comedy and horror movie, but there’s something going on underneath the surface, something that I think is going to require repeat viewings to truly understand. Hell, for all I know, you’re going to have to be from Spain to fully understand what de la Iglesia is going for here.
Metaphors are all well and good, but The Last Circus is a great movie because it’s so goddamn entertaining, one of the most insane movies I’ve ever seen. Imagine the violent excess of an early Peter Jackson film combined with a German Expressionistic sense of the grotesque and placed into a 1930s Universal gothic horror film and you may have some idea of what The Last Circus feels like. Silly violence, horrifying self-mutilation, hilarious slapstick gags and a generous helping of The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame are parts of the recipe behind de la Iglesia’s madness. More than anything, The Last Circus reminds me of the silent classic The Man Who Laughs, which took gothic horror and molded it into the shape of a swashbuckling adventure film.
This much weirdness may seem like a sloppy, kitchen sink approach to filmmaking, but de la Iglesia’s vision is as focused as can be. The Last Circus is beautifully shot and it just moves, never slowing down, forcing the audience to accept everything that happens at face value. Taken apart, there is no way the ending of this film should line up with the opening, but the transition between the two, masked with blood and gun battles and impromptu surgery and a musical number or two, feels completely seamless.
This is a story about two men who are crazy about the same woman and then go crazy over this woman. I’ve never seen a film showcase a descent into madness this vividly. There’s going to be a lot of talk about how insane this movie is but not enough people are going to be talking about how honest it is in its insanity. As stylized and weird as things get, the movie never loses track of its characters and as grotesque as they and their actions become, we’re still completely on board with them. de la Iglesia has eased us into their insanity.
None of this would work without capable performances, but everyone delivers. Carolina Bang’s number one job in this movie is make us believe that these two men would literally destroy themselves and each other over her and she pulls it off. Mindblowingly beautiful in an entirely unconventional sense, Bang is one of those actresses who can’t help but draw your eye. As the villain of the film, Antonio de la Torre begins as a realistically terrifying sadist before growing before out very eyes into an over-the-top, cackling horror movie monster, pulling off the early scenes with an uncomfortable realism and the later scenes with hilarious but terrifying scenery chewing.
However, it’s Carlos Areces’ brave performance that makes The Last Circus work. Based on his actions, Javier should be one of the most off-putting protagonist ever seen, but Areces plays up the sadness of the character, a man ruined by past actions that were beyond his control, who breaks down because he only wants to help others and to be loved. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when de la Iglesia gave him direction for certain scenes. I’m sure “You want me to do WHAT?” was a common refrain.
Which brings me back to the central metaphor of the film. What exactly is The Last Circus trying to say? Maybe that the repercussions of war stretch far beyond the final shot, poisoning generations to come? Maybe that Franco’s rule of Spain left deep, internal scars in the nation that will never quite heal? Maybe that life is a circus and that all you’ve got to do amidst the violence and the pain is to be a clown and find a way to laugh?
Or maybe it’s just as simple as Alex de la Iglesia really, really hating clowns.