A grotesque parable of Franco-era tyranny and opposition, The Last Circus proves a more demented, if also uneven, companion piece to Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. Álex de la Iglesia's delirious carnival ride opens in Civil War-wracked 1937 Spain at a local circus, where a children's performance is interrupted by warfare into which a happy clown (Santiago Segura) is recruited, forced to wield a machete while decked out in a woman's dress and long flowing blond locks. His eventual death at evil Colonel Salcedo's (Sancho Gracia) hands leaves young son Javier orphaned, though by 1973, portly Javier (Carlos Areces)—following in his father's footsteps, and having exacted revenge on his fallen dad's behalf—has himself become a sad clown, and joined up with a local ragamuffin troupe. That crew is dominated by lead clown Sergio (Antonio de la Torre), a dictatorial lunatic who demands that his gruesome punchlines be met with laughter and freely abuses acrobat girlfriend Natalia (Carolina Bang). A deviant beauty whose lips-licking lust for brutal Sergio is soon complicated by her fondness for Javier after he refuses to humor Sergio's meanness, Natalia thus becomes the prize in a battle between the two men, a scenario that Iglesia cannily and unobtrusively posits as a symbolic contest between Francoist authoritarianism (Sergio) and noble humanitarianism (Javier) for the affections of Spain (Natalia).
Marrying del Toro's fantasticality with Jean-Pierre Jeunet's madcap whimsy, The Last Circus subscribes to the belief that moderation is a four-letter word, flying about with an abandon that begets exhilaration as well as exhausting messiness. From artificial-looking CG that meshes with the material's over-the-top atmosphere, to sexualized gore and violence, Iglesias holds back nothing, a strategy that generates a compelling sense of the phantasmagoric nightmarishness of Franco's Spain. The director's tale freely blends real-world historical figures into its fiction, including a bit that finds Franco himself suffering an animalistic hand bite from a feral Javier, who at that point in the lurching, bizarre story has been reduced to performing as a literal hunting dog for the mad Colonel Salcedo's pleasure. Yet the primary focus is less on the canny intermingling of the real and imaginary than on metaphorical madness. To wit, Javier's sweet-natured goodness is corrupted and warped into viciousness by Sergio's despotism, Sergio's own evil manifests itself physically in Frankenstein-ian facial scars (a motif first visualized in an opening photo montage of Franco and classic Universal movie monsters), and Natalia turns out to be to be an abused-woman tart torn between two increasingly similar, ominous fates.
His camera racing about with uninhibited zaniness to create a funhouse-mirror reflection of Spain's twisted political and personal past, Iglesias stumbles somewhat in his desire to populate his film's fringes with outrageous personalities, in particular a motorbike-daredevil whose habitual failures prove feeble attempts at comedy. Yet the sheer gusto of his plotting generally carries the day, especially once Javier mutilates Sergio in retaliation for being beaten with a strongman-game hammer, becomes a wild-beast fugitive living off of stag carcasses in the forest, and then—upon being captured by the Colonel—uses chemical and iron burns to transform himself into an irrational machine gun-toting angel of clownish death. While his characters remain more symbols than flesh-and-blood personages, Iglesias's scripting has an ideological fierceness that makes up for its occasional jaggedness, and his staging and imagery can be strikingly surreal, as during a late scene in which the director takes time to dramatize an average family's everyday bickering at a café and then shatters such mundanity via Javier's weapons-firing psychosis. By the time Javier and Sergio's equally crazy clowns finally square off atop a cross in the Valley of the Fallen, Iglesias's latest has risen to the level of a bloody good, sick allegorical joke.