DIFF 2011 Review: THE LAST CIRCUS
Writer/Director: Álex de la Iglesia
Cast: Carlos Areces, Antonio de la Torre, Carolina Bang, Manuel Tallafé
When most people think of midnight programming at film festivals, their mind immediately drifts to horror. This is not without reason. Most of the time the gory and/or scary dominate late-night time slots, but you cannot underestimate the power of a genre-shattering comedy/drama/horror/fantasy film. These midnight films are meant to examine a different side of filmmaking, one that does not always play by the rules and exemplifies way-out-of-the-box thinking. Not that a slasher or ghost film can’t do that, but when you have something like Álex de la Iglesia’s (ACCIÓN MUTANTE, THE DAY OF THE BEAST) ambitious psycho clown tale THE LAST CIRCUS (BALADA TRISTE DE TROMPETA), you are in for something truly special – and just a little insane.
A war breaks up the circus’ show in late-30's Spain. All of the male performers are pulled out and forced to fight for the rebels against Francisco Franco’s rapidly approaching army. One of the clowns is captured and imprisoned, leaving a fatherless son on the outside. The boy wants to follow the family footsteps and become a clown himself, but his father tells him because of being robbed of his childhood joy, he can never be the happy clown, only a sad clown. He is instructed to get the revenge his father could not.
In 1973, we find Javier (Carlos Areces) on his first day as a payaso triste (sad clown). He soon falls for the circus’ beautiful and buxom acrobat, Natalia (Carolina Bang), but his happy clown counterpart boss, Sergio (Antonio de la Torre), is her abusive alcoholic boyfriend. Javier sneaks around with Natalia and tries to get her to leave the doomed relationship, but after things go a little too far, his revenge demons come out in a shocking way.
THE LAST CIRCUS is a perfect combination of batshit insanity and drama mixed with elements of horror and comedy. The film really defies genre classification, except to categorize it as fantastical. So much of the story is in a whole new level outside the realm of reality and sense. This is, on a base level, a movie about a lunatic clown on a rampage. You can’t have something like that and keep it all grounded - at least not while trying to make in interesting and entertaining. As the film progresses, and Javier loses more of his mind, more of what you think should happen flies right out the window. Self-mutilation makes way for a wickedly grotesque transformation into the angel of death, a clown dressed in drag slaughters soldiers with a machete; does this sound normal? Of course not, and that’s part of its brilliance.
For all of the laughter and madness involved THE LAST CIRCUS still knows when to be serious. After all, the story behind the story is something very important and real. Everything in this film is a reflection of a dark period in Spanish history. We open during the tumultuous times of the Spanish Civil War. Because of Franco's army,Javier is robbed of a childhood and a father. Over the next few decades he, along with the majority of his country, feels the oppression of the regime in power until it reaches its boiling point. People could not take any more as Franco’s time was coming to an end in the 70's when the bulk of this film takes place. De la Iglesia weaves many real life events around the circus environment, involving the explosive assassination of Cerrero-Blanco, news stories always running in the background, and setting the climax at the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen), a 500-foot stone cross built, in part, by Franco’s prisoners.
Monsters are recurring theme, though the definition is played with in the tale. The opening credits sequence flashes shocking images from the war, the men in power and cinematic villains and icons. Showing that a monster can be thought of as dictators, the Phantom of the Opera, abusers and, later, the deformed madmen Javier and Sergio become over their “love” of the same woman. You can really see the effects an oppressive regime can have over a nation in the films those feelings have fueled, from THE LAST CIRCUS, to Guillermo del Toro’s PAN’S LABYRINTH and many more. These little things about De la Iglesia’s movie really elevate it to something of substance and meaning not just a clown hell-bent on revenge.
Our anti-hero is sort of a sad sack character played wonderfully by Carlos Areces. With his pale skin, ever-showing butt crack, and big glasses, he somewhat resembles a Spanish Judah Friedlander (30 ROCK). You can’t help but snicker at him now and again but he still manages to pull you in to his dark mind. Carolina Bang is a vision of beauty throughout the film and you fall for her alongside Javier. All of the circus performers have great quirky performances - an always-arguing couple with a herd of dogs, the very short motorcycle stuntman who can never land a trick without a disaster, and even a violently jealous elephant. The real shining star of the film is Antonio de la Torre as Sergio. His performance as the happy clown with a dark, violent side is quite frightening at times and rightfully earned him a nomination for Best Actor in Spain’s main film awards.
Given this film’s odd premise, the audience might not expect to be completely blown away by the cinematography, but De la Iglesia and his director of photography, Kiko de la Rica, have shattered any expectations. Moments of this film will leave you breathless at the beauty on the screen - scenes so gorgeous they should be postcards or framed and hanging above someone’s fireplace. From lighting to shot composition, this is a much bigger film than you would expect, but I find it hard to imagine working any other way. Quite a bit of CGI is used, but in a mostly seamless way. This one is definitely something you want to see on the big screen if you can. Luckily, Magnolia Pictures’ Magnet division has picked up distribution rights for later this summer!
THE LAST CIRCUS is a strange tale, but rich in visual style, story, and allegory. It’s wildly funny, as well as shocking and engaging. This is the type of movie I live for - a genre film with much more to offer than just a few laughs or gore gags. This is proof for those naysayers that think the wild side of cinema should not be cast off as inferior. If you don’t believe me, just look at the fifteen Goya Award nominations THE LAST CIRCUS so rightfully amassed.
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