Review: The Last Circus (TBC) / Directed by: Alex De La Iglesia / Written by: Alex De La Iglesia / Starring: Carlos Areces, Antonio De La torre, Caroline Bang / UK Release Date: (TBC)
Director Alex De La Iglesia has not yet had the mainstream success that has been enjoyed by his contemporaries Pedro Almodovar and Guillermo Del Toro. He is perhaps best known as the director of the underrated films Perdita Durrango and The Day of the Beast. Quite often he will get compared to Del Toro in terms of the fascination he has with the dark and grotesque but truthfully his influences seem to be more like Brian De Palma, Jean Pierre-Jeunet and perhaps Tim Burton. His latest film The Last Circus (Balada triste de trompeta) plays out very much like a Tim Burton movie, except on a really bad acid trip.
The film starts in 1937 and a rebellion in the Spanish civil war invades a circus tent and recruits the inhabitants. A happy clown turns out to be quite handy with a machete and ends up taking out an entire platoon of soldiers almost single handed whilst wearing oversized shoes. The man is placed in prison and tells his son Javier that it is his destiny to follow his father into clowning but to be a sad clown rather than a happy clown. Javier attempts to break his father out of prison but ultimately it leads to tragedy. Flash forward to the 70s and Franco’s regime in Spain is in its last days; Javier (played by Carlos Areces) now a fully fledged sad clown goes to work for a circus ruled over by their popular happy clown Sergio (Antonio de la Torre). Sergio is a drunken brute whose ego is way out of control and he frequently takes out his rage on his beautiful trapeze artist fiancé Natalia (the smoking hot Carolina Bang). When Javier arrives he sees Natalia swinging above him and is instantly smitten, this leads to him having conflicting feelings when his boss Sergio brutalises her and humiliates him as the sad clown in front of the children. Javier and Natalia strike up a friendship built on the mutual desire to escape and enjoy secret trips to funfairs whilst Sergio is asleep. Although Javier has strong feelings it's clear that Natalia is using him to get back at Sergio, then one night having witnessed one brutal act too many, Javier snaps and attacks Sergio with a trumpet, beating him almost to death and disfiguring him in the process. Javier flees into the wilderness and starts to live as a half crazy feral being, munching on raw deer and whatever comes along. Eventually he is captured by the ruling dictatorship and subjected to more humiliation. After literally biting the hands that feeds him, Javier emerges from the wilderness as a disfigured and gun toting sad clown freedom fighter who gains infamy across Spain for his acts of terrorism. Meanwhile Sergio is trying to still be a happy clown, but having been so disfigured he frightens children and is not having much luck. Both men are still in love with Natalia who has left the circus to become a dancer and this sets them once again on a collision course.
I can safely say that whilst The Last Circus has influences it derives from, it is unlike anything you have ever seen. It’s a mixture of so many different opposing elements that it shouldn’t work and yet somehow, for the most part, it does. This won’t be everyone’s cocktail of choice though and many will resist the many switches between tone and genre. Is it a tragic romance? A horror film? A slapstick comedy? It’s all of these things and that is what makes this film so unique. Does it all work? No not really.
The problem is that the film is so concerned with being as outrageous and covering so many bases in two hours that some of the characterisation suffers as a result. We are presented with the character of Sergio and we know straight away that he could easily become an out and out monster due to the fact that he is an egotistical bastard. With Javier though we are not really given any inkling that he is capable of such violence apart from his previous family history. When he suddenly shifts into forest dwelling feral lunatic it feels like you missed about twenty minutes somewhere because it’s so sudden and nothing previously has given you an idea this was coming. Javier is brutalised and humiliated but never to the extent where you might understand why he would take a hot iron to his face.
Thankfully once this twisted origin story is dealt with the film comes together beautifully in the final thirty minutes with a lunatic cartoon style battle between the two clowns that consumes all around them and also culminates in some impressive set pieces. There are some wonderful secondary characters from the circus who are invested in the conflict and are each given their moment to shine. Especially a motorcycle stuntman who has his own little arc which pays off impressively at the end.
Out of the performers in the film the ones that stand out are Antonio de la Torre as Sergio, a really menacing and evil character given a sharp, strong core by the actor who may well one day follow Javier Bardem into international stardom. Also Carolina Bang is a revelation; first she is striking looking and has one of those great visual introductions which they used to do so well with actresses. She imbues Natalia with a damaged grace and fragility that makes you really care for her.
At the moment The Last Circus doesn’t have UK distribution. When it eventually does pick up a deal you would do well to seek it out. It’s certainly well off the beaten path and original in terms of its story and for this alone deserves to be seen.
Expected rating: 10 out of 10