[9 September 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Metaphors don’t come more crazed than the ones employed by Spanish filmmaker Álex de la Iglesia in his astonishing The Last Circus. Originally entitled Ballad of a Sad Trumpet when it was initially released around the world, the story traces the rise and fall of two polar opposite big top performers who fight for the affections of a flaky female aerialist against the backdrop of the horriofic Franco regime. From the basics alone you have a pretty good idea where the narrative is going. Yet de la Iglesia delivers his good vs. evil muddle against a backdrop so stunning, so visually and intellectually spectacular, that you really don’t mind if no one is redeemed and everything appears doomed and deflated.
As a child, Javier saw his father kidnapped by the soldiers in support of the dictatorial government of Francisco Franco. After excelling in the battlefield (where he carved up rebels with a machete while still in his clown garb), the man winds up working as a slave laborer, helping to build a massive memorial cross. Eventually, the child grows up and wants to follow in the family business. Unfortunately, because of all the grief he has known, Javier (Carlos Areces) can only play a sad clown. Luckily, a local circus is looking for such an act. It will go well with their funny/happy harlequin Sergio (Antonio de la Torre). When the two are put together, something magical happens. The circus, even under repressive authoritarian rule, thrives.
Of course, there’s a complication, and it comes in the form of the player’s personalities, as well as Sergio’s free spirited wife Natalia (Carolina Bang). Though sunny onstage, the Happy clowns is actually a brutal, sadistic tyrant. He beats his spouse and constantly humiliates Javier. As the Sad portion of the partnership, our hero also hides a secret - a murderous streak that can come to the fore at any minute. When his friendship with Natalia gets too personal and he is confronted, Javier snaps. He becomes obsessed with his craft, as well as bloody revenge. Naturally, the final showdown between our battling buffoons takes place on the same spot where, years before, a young boy tried to save his father…and failed.
From the divergent personalities - and make-up accenting same - to the surreal set pieces indicative of the horrors under a despotic regime, The Last Circus is simply amazing. It’s the kind of titanic tour de force you don’t see in today’s cookie cutter cinema. It’s all sparkling invention and sinister subtext. It plows through its purpose with juggernaut intensity and never once lets up on either its manner or its message. Indeed, when viewed through the veil of history, we are clearly seeing something akin to Renoir’s Rules of the Game, or perhaps more appropriate, a blackly comic Pasolini’s Salo. While not as sunny as the former or depraved as the latter, de la Iglesia is clearly commenting on the various factions fermenting under Franco’s thumb. The results are never pretty, and never settled.
On the one side, we have Javier. He is sad and sentimental. His life has been a series of struggles and personal defeats. Becoming the yin to a far more funny (and popular) clown’s yang marks his fate with a fatalistic note. He will never get the girl. He will never get the acclaim. Once spurned, his reaction reveals what we’ve known all along - that he’s a serial killer with an uncontrollable anger just waiting to work its way to the surface. By applying such an obvious allusion - John Wayne Gacy instantly comes to mind - Javier is both amplified and reanalyzed. Initially, all of our fears are focused on his rival, Sergio. Once the beast is unleashed inside our unhinged jester, the gloves come off and the blood starts to flow.
Similarly, our Happy fool is nothing more than a drunken fraud. Sergio loves the spotlight and the attention of the audience, but he is a mean, bitter ass who uses his fists as a form of self-expression. Even worse, the main target is his trampy spouse Natalia. One wrong move and she’s lying on the floor, bruised. Naturally, there is no excuse for such behavior, and oddly enough, when robbed of his place in the hearts of his fans, he remains even more twisted and troubled. Since we are really seeing both sides of the same comic coin, witnessing the tears…and jeers…and fears…and vicious need for revenge…of a clown, Sergio is often seen as the villain. Even better, when Javier goes insane, his other half stays firmly fixed within his anger.
All of which hints at a hoedown between Santa Sangre era Jodorowsky and La Strada style Fellini. Add in a healthy dose of Terry Gilliam-esque midwifery, a smidgen of David Lynch, and few fixtures from the modern fright film and you’ve got a eye poppin’, head spinnin’, throat graspin’ work of well earned Grand Guignol goofiness. You’ve also got a terrifying look at life under siege, of how nothing is as it seems and everything appear ripe to rape and destroy. As the populace putters along looking for relief, the players execute their unreal strategies with as much collateral damage (and delight) as possible. De la Inglesia clearly wants to make a statement of purpose, to propose that nothing within a dictatorship is sound, settled, or safe. Instead, he argues for a cracked logic which loops around the neck like a noose, slowly strangling a nation into time bomb ticking submission.
And that’s just the content. The directorial panache show is sensationally psychotic. There is a sequence where Javier transforms from mild mannered milquetoast to raging loon that channels both the Universal horror of the past with the superhero origins of today. Our rivals end up battling for supremacy and gal pal bragging rights along the ridge of an oversized crucifix. Cameras encircle and traverse the sad remnants of the once mighty big top, and in between, Javier fantasies about Natalia in a way that makes the old school Hollywood musicals of the ‘30s look like dull monochrome missteps.
It all adds up to that rarity in modern moviemaking - vision. De la Iglesia obvious has the skill to envision the creepy carnival bouncing around his brain. But more than that, The Last Circus is an affirmation of what can go very wrong in a world where everything is supposed to be cut and dry. With good there is bad. With darkness there is light. With Franco, however, and the men who made his power struggle a success, there was no such dichotomy. Like Javier and Sergio, they are cut from the same sullied cloth…and when they comes to loggerheads, no one will survive - or want to.