If you are the sort of person who finds clowns terrifying - and many people do - by all means steer clear of The Last Circus, or else risk being scarred for life. For everyone else — particularly viewers with a strong stomach and an appreciation for surreal humor that borders on horror — the latest film from Spanish wildman Alex de la Iglesia (Perdita Durango, The Day of the Beast) is a must-see proposition.
The movie begins in 1937 Madrid, when a troupe of circus performers is forced to take arms in the country’s burgeoning civil war, resulting in the bizarre sight of a clown in full makeup wielding a machete against national troops in a way that makes Jason Voorhees seem like a Girl Scout selling cookies.
Flash-forward to 1973, the waning days of the Franco regime. Javier (Carlos Areces), still scarred from witnessing his father’s horrific acts, is now a clown himself — a sad one, with a permanent tear streaking his face, because he saw too much violence and bloodshed as a child. Javier is portly and shy and meek: He harbors a crush on the beautiful acrobat Natalia (Carolina Bang), but she’s married to the monstrously abusive Sergio (Antonio de la Torre), a fellow circus performer and psychopath who hides his misanthropic nature beneath his clown makeup. Javier doesn’t dare act on his romantic impulses — he, like everyone else in the traveling circus, is terrified of Sergio — until the brute pushes things too far, awakening a savagery in Javier that knows no bounds. And like Pandora’s box, once Javier sets his demons loose, there is no way to put them back.
The Last Circus, which in its native Spain was titled Balade triste de trompeta after the famed song by Raphael, cleverly incorporates real-life incidents into its stranger-than-fiction narrative, including the 1973 assassination of Spanish Prime Minister Luis Carrero Blanco, who died from a car bomb so powerful it propelled his automobile onto the roof of a building (there is also an outrageous scene in which Javier meets Franco that is hilariously daring). But you don’t have to appreciate the historical contexts to revel in the outrageous ride The Last Circus delivers — a ride that recalls David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, only much more furious and demented, which says a lot.
You could accuse de la Iglesia of being a sensationalist, as he was with many of his previous films. There are several moments in the movie clearly intended to do nothing but shock and disturb, and the picture is relentless in its assault: Every time you think it couldn’t get loonier, it does. The comedy is so dark, many won’t find it at all funny at all, and some of the symbolism can be a bit much (the climax takes place atop a building shaped like a cross). But the film is lightning-paced, packed with awe-inspiring setpieces and utterly fearless. If you’re the sort who demands logic and plausibility from movies, The Last Circus is not for you. But for those with a taste for the subversive and outrageous, run, don’t walk.
Cast: Carlos Areces, Antonio de la Torre, Carolina Bang, Manuel Talafalle, Alejandro Tejerias, Santiago Segura.
Writer-director: Alex de la Iglesia.
Producer: Verane Frediani, Gerardo Herrero, Franck Ribiere.
A Magnet Films release. Running time: 107 minutes. In Spanish with English subtitles. Vulgar language, nudity, sexual situations, violence, gore, psychopathic clowns. Plays Sept. 22-Sept. 25 in Miami-Dade only: O Cinema.