Imagine, for a moment, if you combined Frank Castle aka The Punisher from the Marvel Universe, with The Joker from Batman in the DC Universe. Now: visualize there being two of these insane clowns fighting each other… and that is essentially what The Last Circus is.
And it is conceivably one of the most demented, disturbing movies I’ve ever seen, and would easily fit into my “Top 10 Most Fucked Up Movies Of All Time.”
But when I say, “Fucked Up,” I mean that in a delectable manner, because this film is both a tormenting and challenging, yet thoroughly enjoyable experience.
The Last Circus, directed by Ãlex de la Iglesia, is a Spanish movie that uses the clown motif as a grotesque parody and statement on the deep and dark sociopolitical history of the country in which it was made. Starring Carlos Areces as our protagonist Javier and Antonio de la Torre Martin as our antagonist Sergio, the film follows the tale of a sad clown who falls into the depths of insanity, leaving a trail of blood in his wake – in a story that acts as a metaphor for some powerful political assertions.
The Last Circus (also titled Balada triste de trompeta in Spain; which translates to Sad Trumpet Ballad) opens during the Spanish Civil War, and follows the childhood (or lack thereof) of Javier, as his father (a funny clown in the local circus) is forced into Loyalist Forces, and later imprisoned. Javier seeks revenge and endeavors to free his father, in an act that turns disastrous, and would have a profound impact upon his character for the rest of his life.
In the course of the 1970’s, Javier joins a circus as a sad clown, counterpart to Sergio – an aggressive drunk who beats his girlfriend, Natalia (Carolina Bang). Javier falls in love with Natalia, and the two begin an innocent, and albeit non-sexual, love affair. The relationship triangle becomes a powder keg, dumping all three into various levels of insanity, deformity, and interpersonal war – leading up to a climax that (despite its weirdness) will have you on the edge of your seat.
The introductory prologue is stunning, with stark visuals and a beautiful approach to lighting that sets the tone for the entire film – followed by an opening credit sequence that cements the historical basis that is just as spectacular and attention grabbing. During the course of the movie, the violence is deliciously unrealistic, yet frighteningly dominating. For the thriller/horror fans, there’s plenty of blood and gore to be found – and there’s nothing better than a clown in a dress hacking at opponents with a machete; or a man scarring himself with chemicals and an iron to make himself into a permanent clown.
The Last Circus is a film that is jam-packed with many statements and posturing of a variety of issues; whether they are explicitly on the surface of the plot, or metaphorically implied via symbolism or imagery. That being said, The Last Circus probes into far too many controversial elements from time to time. At times, it is unclear whether director Ãlex de la Iglesia is trying to make a political statement in various moments, or a social commentary on domestic violence in others. It is tightly packed with a whole range of social, political, and cultural issues, that at times it seems to lose its focus.
Notwithstanding this, there are two very strong elements of the movie’s statements. One is the concept of self, and the development of self. The two divisive main characters can truly represent the two sides of one person – showing the multifaceted, dark characteristics within all of us; represented in the form of funny clown and sad clown (like the happy and sad theater masks). It applies the representational form liberally throughout the film, making the plot almost impossible to label as an epic hero’s journey, or a dark tragedy.
Nevertheless, the strongest and most obvious statement made in the movie is how the story and the visuals act as both a parody and metaphor for sociopolitical historical elements of Spain. Throughout the film, there are instants of historic precedent shown (as in Forrest Gump for example), to give context and meaning to the specific points in time that actions occur. I fear though, that many American audiences may find the historical milieus lost on them in moments, and could cause a distorted perception of how the events play out.
I found this perhaps the most powerful element of the show. The symbolism used her is stark and crisp, and most likely unmistakable to those who live in the region. One clown fulfills the role of the impact of the Nationalists on Spain; the other fulfills that of the Government Loyalists from the Civil War, and Spain being embodied by the character of Natalia. The posturing of the assertions made by the director in this film make for a breathtaking and incredible climax, that highlights the dangers posed to any nation by ideologues, no matter their position.
The romance story aspect of the film, at times, reminds me a little of Water For Elephants (the novel by Sara Gruen, not the film, mind you), in places; as we follow our central character journeying and making his way in a circus clown occupation. It is quite the proverbial roller-coaster ride, with major shifts in pace and focus as the story develops. The visual style of the movie takes influence from numerous films – from classic epics, to the significance of hues, with a hint of homages to Terry Gilliam here and there. As The Last Circus evolves, it descends into demented darkness, grabbing thriller and horror motifs that pay tribute to the likes of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, with a smidgeon of Hitchcock for good measure. Quite frankly, the visual nature of this movie is an absolute delight.
Allegory is rich in this film with a wide variety of layers and subtext – mostly visual. There are references to religion, classical myths and legends, as well as elemental aspects of fairy tales. This is all evident from the very start of the movie – as a boy, Javier watches his father taken away by soldiers, and as it happens, a lion walks up and sits next to him – a powerful metaphor, foreshadowing numerous elements of the film and its innumerable subtexts.
As far as the technical aspects of filmmaking are concerned, The Last Circus is a masterwork. The camera work is a grand effort, with cranework, steadycam, all worked in at specific appropriate moments to the story – working hand in hand with the spectacular lighting direction, which in and of itself is cutting-edge and spectacular. The lighting in The Last Circus is reason alone for watching this movie – setting a tone and mood that is unforgettable as it is essentially linked to the storytelling. Working in conjunction with the extraordinary camera work and CGI embellishments to help bolster the visuals, the film is eye candy: from the positive colorful moments to the depths of the darker insanities that prevail towards the conclusion.
Be advised though: The Last Circus is not an easy film to follow. Its pace is deliberately uneven, and includes much dark comedy that many might find a little tough to digest. The slower moments are made up for by the dimly-lit horror acts and the over-exaggerated (almost Grindhouse-style) violent action. It is a challenging film to watch – and while I am an individual that embraces challenging films, whether they be horror-based or visually macabre or challenging to my morals/ethics; others find them too difficult to watch.
I still recommend the movie in spite of the challenge it is to view. The visual nature and the strength of the lighting and the sets are magnificent and well worth viewing simply because of this – believe me, the crew behind the making of The Last Circus are absolute masters of their craft, and I feel they should be commended with countless accolades for their accomplishments on this movie. Add it to your queue and give it a look.