Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Alex de la Iglesia
Stars: Carlos Arece, Antonio de la Torre, Carolina Bang
The Last Circus (also known as Balada Triste de Trompeta or A Sad Trumpet Ballad) was a bold choice for opening night film of the recent Spanish Film Festival. This is a startling and confronting film that will not appeal to everyone.
Directed with verve by Alex de la Iglesia (The Oxford Murders, Ferpect Crime, etc), The Last Circus is a dark, picaresque and violent black comedy about the romantic rivalry between two horribly disfigured clowns for the love of the same woman. A far cry from the sanitised romantic triangle at the centre of the recent circus drama Water For Elephants, this film comes across as something of a feverish surreal nightmare that contains elements of Fellini, David Lynch, and even Todd Browning’s grotesque Freaks. The film itself is crammed with references to film history, which will appeal to film literate audiences. It is also an angry film that offers an allegory of life in Spain under Franco, and presents a rather grotesque view of a country at war with itself. The opening credit montage of monsters, both real and fictional, is juxtaposed with images of famous dictators and political leaders, which hints at the political nature of the film.
The Last Circus begins in 1937 during the Civil War, when the male performers of a circus troupe are pressed into military service to fight against Franco’s army. The young Javier watches as his father and fellow soldiers are taken prisoner and executed, and is intent on getting revenge.
The film then moves ahead to 1973, as Franco’s power is beginning to wane. Javier (Carlos Arece) has followed in his father’s footsteps, and has become the sad clown at a circus run by the drunken, sadistic Sergio (Antonio de la Torre). Sergio is abusive towards his wife Natalia (Carolina Bang), the beautiful circus trapeze artist. When Javier shows sympathy towards her, it sets in motion a chain of violent events that spiral out of control, and reach a startling climax in the Valley Of The Fallen.
The performances of the three leads are all excellent. Arece essays his descent into madness with a nuanced and mercurial performance that swings from one extreme to the other. De la Torre suffuses his character with a fierce and unapologetically vicious edge and his performance has been nominated for Best Actor in Spain’s film awards. Bang is by turns sultry and seductive, but also brings a vulnerability to her performance.
De la Iglesia maintains a suitably frenzied and frantic approach to the material, bringing matters to a gloriously over the top climax on top of the massive cross overlooking a former work camp. Kiko de la Rica’s cinematography is gorgeous and his wide screen lensing lends a visual beauty to the often bleak material.
The Last Circus certainly crams in a lot – romance, jealousy, violence, political allegory, and black humour. This is a film that needs to be seen a couple of times to appreciate the full scope of De la Iglesia’s vivid imagination.