Beloved by some, belittled by others, and seen as both entertaining and frightening in various guises, the amusing comic performers known as clowns made the leap from the circus to the screen with the advent of the cinematic medium. Most commonly characterised as evil for the purposes of film narratives, clowns abound in the horror genre as evidenced by everything from It to Poltergeist to Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses and sequel The Devil’s Rejects, however their exaggerated appearance also makes them rife for dramas and satires. 2010 Venice Film Festival best directing and screenplay Silver Lion-winning Spanish feature The Last Circus (otherwise known as A Sad Trumpet Ballad or Balada triste de trompeta) combines all four interpretations of the physical fools, in an Goya-nominated effort that is equally funny, frightening, serious and sardonic. Written and directed by The Oxford Murders‘ Álex de la Iglesia with ample servings of his trademark offbeat sense of humour, the feared buffoons provide the protagonists for a playful take on politics and passion, in a twisted vision of the macabre and the mesmerising.
As a small boy living in the shadow of civil war, Javier (Sasha Di Bendetto, in his only role to date) watches as his father (Joaquín Climent, Of Love And Other Demons) and colleagues are plucked from their pantomime performance and enlisted as soldiers against Franco’s army. As a youth (Jorge Clemente, La pecera de Eva), he pledges to his imprisoned progenitor his desire to follow into the family footsteps, with his father decreeing Javier’s suitability for playing the sad, not happy, clown due to his years of suffering. Decades later, as an overweight middle-aged man (Carlos Areces, Spanish Movie) living under the infamous authoritarian dictatorship, he attempts to realise his dream. Manoeuvring his way into the circus of the overbearing Sergio (Antonio de la Torre, Che), he takes his allocated role opposite his superior’s happy, silly version. Although warned against Sergio’s explosive nature, the shy Javier can’t help jeopardising his performing future by falling in love with the show’s acrobatic star attraction – and boss’ paramour – Natalia (Carolina Bang, The Storymaker). The warped web of love and lust that eventuates threatens not only the circus, but the surrounding city, as the colleagues turned adversaries do battle as they follow their hearts.
Imbued with sadness amidst the striking spectacle of the jousting jesters, The Last Circus combines a Tarantino-esque allegory on Spanish history with a facsimile of the Water For Elephants storyline. Illustrating the former, we witness the tortured yet tender Javier twice thrust into militarised mayhem over a forty-year period (first unwillingly, and later irrationally), as civilisation seemingly crumbles around him. Demonstrating the latter is the simple tale that lurks beneath the historical context and political content, with the love triangle between the underdog, the psychotic incumbent and the attractive object of communal affection bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Robert Pattinson vehicle currently in general release. Yet, despite the piecemeal pairing of the crazy and the downright corny, de Iglesia’s film is a weird and wicked feast of horror and comedy that unexpectedly succeeds. With gleeful performances that boost the insanity quota and ground the gore of the proceedings, frenetic direction and a fantastical script that perfects the balance of mania and melodrama, the movie merges the bizarre with the brutal with ease. An intermittently intense, intelligent and exhausting offering, The Last Circus is enjoyable, absurd and utterly enthralling.
The Last Circus is currently screening in Australia as part of the Spanish Film Festival. Further information is available on the festival website and blog.