LastCircusOne of the very best films from Spain’s Alex de la Iglesia, and one of the finest-ever clown movies. As is his forte, Iglesia takes the film in some profoundly warped directions, with an eye for the perverse and aberrant that will surely turn some viewers off but will just as surely have the rest of us hooked.

As with most of the films of Alex de la Iglesia—which include twisted gems like ACCION MUTANTE (1993), DAY OF THE BEAST (1995), DYING OF LAUGHTER (1999) and THE PERFECT CRIME (2004)—2010’s THE LAST CIRCUS (BALADA TRISTE DE TROMPETA) was quite popular in Europe, where it won several prestigious awards, but never got much play in the US. It’s now available on DVD, and a prime candidate for cult rediscovery.

Madrid, 1937: during a clown performance at a circus the two main performers are forcibly conscripted into fighting in the Spanish civil war, resulting in death and incarceration. Years later Javier, the son of one of the fighter clowns, attempts to free his imprisoned father. The old man dies in the attempt and a prison guard is blinded in one eye. Javier escapes the melee and decides to join a circus, where he plays a sad clown—a role that doesn’t requite much acting on his part.

In the circus Javier becomes a target for Sergio, the (ironically) happy clown who bullies everyone around him and regularly beats his acrobat wife Natalia. She, it so happens, is a masochist who none-too-secretly enjoys the abuse.

Javier commences a just-friends courtship with Natalia that appears to be evolving into something more, but then Sergio finds out. He beats Javier severely, and the latter retaliates by giving Sergio an even more intense thrashing that leaves him deformed.

Javier and Sergio become outcasts. Javier gets rounded up by a couple of hunters, one of whom happens to be the guard Javier partially blinded. In this guy’s care Javier goes completely mad, and through a nasty bout of self-mutilation transforms himself into a literal monster. As such he kills his captors and, armed with machine guns, embarks on a rampage of destruction, with Sergio as his ultimate target.

Alex de la Iglesia directs in his usual energetic and high spirited style. As in all his best work, Iglesia’s comedic audacity and love of the grotesque are melded with a virtuoso filmmaking sensibility. The action is cartoony but never overly so (i.e. it’s not campy), utilizing subtle overacting, screwball comedy and surprisingly intense violence. The sense of heightened reality is a good thing, as it helps gloss over the script’s many implausibilities (such as the fact that consequences rarely ever result from the characters’ violent actions).

Iglesia’s collaborators certainly deserve credit, especially make-up designer Jose Quetglas, who creates some unforgettable human monsters; cinematographer Kiko de la Rica, whose desaturated visuals are among the most striking of any of Iglesia’s films; and of course the lead actors Carlos Areces (as Javier) and Antonio de la Torre (as Sergio), both of whom succeed in fleshing out characters whose natures range from sympathetic to psychotic, often in a single scene.

Not to give anything away, but in this film love does not conquer all and the good guys don’t necessarily win—although by the end it’s not so easy to tell the “good” characters from the bad ones. The film suffers somewhat from substandard CGI that grows increasingly prevalent toward the end, but otherwise THE LAST CIRCUS gets my highest possible recommendation.

Vital Statistics

Tornasol Films/La Fabrique 2/uFilm/Canal+Espana

Director: Alex de la Iglesia
Producers: Gerardo Herrero, Verane Frediani, Franck Ribiere
Screenplay: Alex de la Iglesia
Cinematography: Kiko de la Rica
Editing: Alejandro Lazaro
Cast: Carlos Areces, Antonio de la Torre, Carolina Bang, Manuel Tallafe, Alejandro Tejeria, Manuel Tejada, Enrique Villen, Gracia Olayo, Sancho Gracia, Paco Sagarzazu, Santiago Segura