Year: 2011
Director: Alex de la Iglesia
Writers: Alex de la Iglesia
Region of Origin: Spain
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rating: R
Digital, Color, 107 mins

Synopsis: 1937, in the midst of the brutal Spanish Civil War, a “Happy” circus clown is interrupted mid-performance and forcibly recruited by a militia. Still in his costume, he is handed a machete and led into battle against National soldiers, single handedly massacring an entire platoon. This absurd and disturbing scenario raises the curtain on a twisted tale of love, revenge, and psychopathic clowns that could only spring from the mind of filmmaker Álex de la Iglesia. (Source)

Alex de la Iglesia’s The Last Circus (aka “Balada triste de trompeta” or “Sad Trumpet Ballad,” which I prefer) is hands down one of the craziest, most insane movies I’ve seen all year. Scratch that, it’s one of the craziest movies I’ve ever seen? That’s about right. Let’s see, it has clowns with automatic weapons and machetes, animals falling from the sky, self-disfigurement, rough sex, a beautiful acrobat, grotesque imagery, insane hallucinatory fever dreams, an abusive husband and pseudo-political subtext. I’m not even sure where to start, but I will say this — even though this movie isn’t for everyone, those who brave it are in for a treat. This is the definition of art-house cinema, and it’s a must see for the year.

To get some context, I’ll just explain the set-up. The story begins during the Spanish Civil War when a “happy” clown, in mid-performance still dressed in his clown suit, is forcibly recruited to fight. He leaves his son and massacres an entire military unit with a machete, and in one of their last interactions the imprisoned father asks his son what he wants to be when he grows old. The son says that he longs to follow in his father and grandfather’s footsteps and become a clown, to which his father responds (in so many words) that he’s not fit to be a “happy” clown because he’s had too sad of a life. Flash forward almost 40 yrs later and young Javier is indeed grown up and has just begun working as a “sad” clown at a frozen traveling circus. Cue the uncannily gorgeous siren acrobat, who just happens to belong to the “happy” clown, and you can see where this is going.

Visually and stylistically, Iglesia’s movie is pretty much all over the place, and I mean that in the best possible way. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call out similarities to Alejandro Jodorowski’s Santa Sangre, Guillermo Del Toro’s spanish movies (the war context), a darker Jean-Pierre Jeunet, or even Hitchcock, which Roque Banos’ beautiful genre-bending score and the movie’s high-altitude finale illicit. Iglesia mixes everything, new and classic, into one stunningly beautiful, albeit insane, look into the balance between happiness and sadness and how they’re inextricably connected. The cinematography is also absolutely beautiful, going from monochromatic to vibrant in an instant, and every shot is meticulously staged, filmed and edited into a lightning fast pace. The movie is just under two hours long, but so much happens so quickly that there isn’t much that is wasted in the movie’s lean running time. You’d be right to say that something so overwrought might just be too much, but coupled with amazing performances and a powerful and poetic script, Iglesia gives all the shock and fanfare a worthy context.

Luckily, the entire cast steps up to their roles and each give fearless performances, with the main duo of sad/happy clowns and the object of their affection, Natalia the acrobat, fittingly being the strong points. Javier, the “sad” clown (played by Carlos Areces), is probably the most important role because in the end it’s really his story, and he’s our gateway into all of the madness. He effortlessly goes from awkward to endearing to… something else completely, which I wont ruin here. Sergio, the “happy” clown (played by Antonio de la Torre) is a fitting contrast to Areces and nails being as ruthlessly and devilishly dark and funny as Areces is genuinely naive. Last but not least is the stunning acrobat Natalia as the two clowns’ object of desire, played by Carolina Bang (director Iglesia’s real-life partner and muse). Frankly, her character is completely off, but in a good way. While her character isn’t as fleshed out as the other two, she does exactly what’s needed. The solid backing cast holds their own as well, which just helps to cement the entire ordeal/experience.

Ultimately, while you might’ve heard the entire “life is a circus” trope a millions of times before, never in my opinion has it been used as effectively or (keyword!) shockingly poignant as it is here. Everything inherently creepy and ultimately sad about clowns is amplified to the max, while the movie deftly balances a tone that is either extremely sad or funny, and usually both. The Last Circus is a daring, fever dream into the insanity of the most twisted circus of all: life.

P.S. I can’t stop thinking about how great the opening credits and ending are. In this year’s tops for sure!

Crome Rating: 4.5/5

SG