The Spanish Civil War and the following Franco regime have understandably often been the concern of a number of filmmakers, most recently and famously Guillermo del Toro. Del Toro, most notably in The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, spun painful Spanish history into elegant fables of loss, regret ,and ultimately a kind of qualified hope. But Álex de la Iglesia, the mad fantasist of such films as 800 Bullets, isn’t interested in anything in the way of subtlety or subtext in The Last Circus. In the explosive opening, set near the end of the war, soldiers interrupt a children’s show and forcibly enlist the man playing the Happy Clown (Enrique Villén), which leads to the amazingly garish site of a clown in drag mowing Franco soldiers down with a machete. The Happy Clown is soon captured and imprisoned, suddenly orphaning his bookish and passive little son. It’s telling of The Last Circus that this sequence is one of the more understated in the entire film.
After an opening-credits montage that eliminates any guess as to what de la Iglesia’s aim with this film may be (images of the Franco dictatorship’s atrocities are intercut with pop-cultural totems, most prominently images of the Universal monster movies), The Last Circus flashes forward to the 1970s with the Franco regime in decline. The little boy of the opening is revealed to be Javier (Carlos Areces), now a portly man in big black glasses that swallow his face. Javier is the sort of outcast who wears his sadness on his sleeve, thus rendering him incapable of following in his father’s footsteps as a Happy Clown. Instead, Javier must settle for the role of the Sad Clown in a dwindling circus that puts him at the mercy of the tyrannical happy clown Sergio (Antonio de la Torre), a cruel and terrifying taskmaster who unofficially rules the circus’s roost.
The two clowns, clearly and consciously obviously symbols of the disputing sides of the Spanish Civil War, soon find themselves in conflict over the affections of the gorgeous Natalia (Carolina Bang), an acrobat whom Javier first glimpses almost literally descending from the heavens. Natalia, in a development that contradicts the plot procession of most lonely-nerd movies, returns Javier’s affections, as his sadness taps into a side of her that’s equally nurturing and controlling. But she, of course, belongs to Sergio.
A film so aggressively rooted in blunt symbolism tends to be weighed down by its ambitions, you normally feel, as you might with lesser Bergman for example, that you’re watching the visual equivalent of a boring and not especially profound term paper. But The Last Circus is so exhilaratingly insane it transcends the mawkish martyr complex that tends to plague films concerned with real life tragedy. It’s clear that de la Iglesia is using an historical context as a foundation for seemingly every ghoulish whim that’s ever entered his mind. The Last Circus takes the mostly truthful joke that all people hate clowns and turns it on its head into a bizarre and amazing parable of human need.
The film is stuffed with references to Spanish history as well as to an incalculable number of previous films, but an original sensibility arises. The characters, mostly archetypes, still manage to surprise you. Javier, whom you’re initially led to believe will act as the traditional movie simp, is revealed to have a startling knack for survival that arises from a crazed, only half-subsumed malevolence, while Sergio reveals a gift for calculation and manipulation that transcends the kind of brute we initially take him for. These twin psychopaths are the perfect antiheroes for a suffering conflicted country.
The Last Circus is a horror film staged as an unhinged action movie that could almost be about a half-mad superhero; imagine a Batman movie populated with two Jokers and in which Batman is nowhere to be seen and you have an idea of this film’s chaotic, inventive, free-associational charge. The action scenes, which occur frequently, have the primal expressive range of a great silent film; and the love scenes, variations of which are also frequent, have a sensual yet macabre directness.
The Last Circus probably sounds like a genre wank-off, and it is, but the intensity of emotion that de la Iglesia ultimately displays marks it as something special. The performances are remarkably committed, which allows the inevitably unpleasant ending to achieve the level of tragedy with which it is obviously aiming. This peculiar film finds, in its prankish way, the darkly sentimental heart that beats at the center of even the most gruesome good horror films. The Last Circus understands the wounded poetry of the old Universal monster movies in a fashion that recent American revivals have never managed.
The distinctive visuals, an often flamboyant mixture of grays and vibrant reds and oranges, are rendered with the eye-popping clarity that was clearly intended. The sound mix, which can be tricky in an action-packed film (voices are sometimes muffled by the showier effects), is detailed and well mixed. The actors' voices are entirely audible, and the ostentatious set pieces are exhilaratingly immersive. The English dub is the only somewhat awkward part of this DVD presentation, but you shouldn't be watching a dubbed film anyway. Use the English subtitles like any other cinephile in good standing.
The extras are slim, but unusually appealing, even poetic. The making-of and behind-the-scenes featurettes afford one a fleeting, nonlinear glimpse of the production of the film, leaving little in the way of pandering testimonial. The best segment, though, is the "Visual Effects" featurette, which is a 10-minute montage of the creation of the film's effects and set to the film's beautiful score—a small work of art in its own right. There are also a few trailers. Part of me wishes for a director commentary, but The Last Circus might be best left unexplained.
The Last Circus is an unhinged, kaleidoscopic display of a talented filmmaker's fetishes and obsessions.