Director: Álex de la Iglesia
Writer: Álex de la Iglesia
Stars: Carlos Areces, Antonio de la Torre, Carolina Bang
It’s a great mystery to me why Álex de la Iglesia isn’t a better known director in the English speaking world. Since 1993’s Acción mutante he’s made over a dozen films which, although they do vary in terms of quality, nevertheless make up a substantial body of work. What’s more, he’s turned his hands to wide range of subject matter – from westerns (800 Bullets) to media satires (As Luck Would Have It) to murder mysteries (The Oxford Murders) – while at the same time ensuring that his work maintains a distinct, individual perspective. In my mind he deserves to be considered alongside his better known peers Pedro Almodóvar and Guillermo del Toro and, in fact, The Last Circus plays pretty much like an unholy mash-up of something that those two directors might have come up with if working together (albeit with a dash of Alejandro Jodorowsky thrown in for good measure).
The story begins in 1937, where a circus is interrupted mid-performance by a left wing militia and forced to join the battle the fascist opposition. Among those conscripted is a clown who – still clad in his red nose, make up and over-sized shoes – proves to be surprisingly adept with a machete. He’s captured, though, and sentenced to hard labor, leaving his son Javier with both a grievance against the military authorities and ambitions to follow in his father’s performing footsteps. Unfortunately the grown up Javier (Carlos Areces) has had such a miserable life that he’s only suitable at playing the ‘sad’ clown – the butt of all the jokes – and when so when he joins a rundown circus he is partnered with a popular ‘happy’ clown Sergio (Antonio de la Torre). Sergio, however, is a monster, violent and abusive to both his new colleague and his girlfriend Natalia (Carolina Bang), who forms a close friendship with Javier as a result. This only makes Sergio all the more jealous, and everything escalates in an increasingly bizarre manner.
This is a film that frankly couldn’t have been made by anyone else: it’s a crazy mix of horror, whimsicality, social history, melodrama and surrealism. There are numerous inserts and background details that place it very much in the context of the times it’s set (primarily the Spanish Civil War and the early 1970s, towards the end of Franco’s reign), but it’s not really commenting on history, more using it as a crux on which to hang it’s idiosyncratic story-line. And the story-line is entirely unpredictable, it’s almost impossible to tell where things are going to go next; at first it plays a bit like a revenge film, then there are elements of seventies crime movie (the references to an otherwise largely unseen band of terrorists), then a romance, then finally into a deranged version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame meets The Phantom of the Opera.
Technically it’s hugely accomplished: the initial battles scene is as impressive as anything filmed by Spielberg or Annaud, albeit with a crazed killer clown as the primary character. The pacing never lets up and visually it’s packed with interesting flourishes. The cast also do well, with Antonio de la Torre standing out and Manuel Tajeda putting in a nice supporting role as the manager of the struggling circus. It picked up a host of awards in Spain, Italy and Argentina, but didn’t even get a widespread release in the UK (although it was shown in the US, perhaps with the large Hispanic community in mind).