The Dark Knight of the Soul
Spanish and other European nominations and awards in its résumé, The Last Circus/Balada triste de trompeta has been foreseeably controversial in that home country. The film begins with the horrific Civil War and a resultant event before settling into a story three decades and more later, two years before Franco’s death and the transition to democracy. It covers a bit of the latter era’s popular culture, introduces an unvillainous Generalissimo (Juan Viadas) and frames of his assassinated Premier Carrero Blanco, reopens wounds of postwar brutality and, in escalating carnage, may be intended as comment on the nation’s infamous 1492-1975 history and blood-drenched religion. If the latter, however, the thrust is lost amidst the commission of excesses in the critique of excess.
The emotional aberration and physical disfigurement, the violence different in feel from the US crew-cut variety, the revenge, the bursts of sick humor, do not meld well, so this “twisted tale of love, revenge, and psychopathic clowns” is not only unpleasant in essence, but torture to witness. A final chase ripped from The Phantom of the Opera, North by Northwest and Batman could have been redemptive for those who gut out the hour and two-thirds, but empathy or interest have been dissipated along the way.
Disrupting a circus in 1937 Madrid, Loyalist militia impress whatever live bodies they can, including a clown (Santiago Segura) in woman’s clothing who curses war and its idiots. But he fights furiously, is captured and later forced to join thousands of prisoners excavating the rock-cut church whose original nave was longer than that of St. Peter’s and which is crowned with a stone cross at now touristy Valley of the Fallen.
The clown’s bespectacled son (Sasha Di Benditto) avenges him with dynamite and then, abruptly thirty-odd years later, has grown up into pudgy Sad Clown Javier (Carlos Areces) whose tragic life (and that of his nation) prevents his making people laugh but who is a fall-guy complement to a circus’ Happy Clown Sergio (Antonio de la Torre), especially attractive to youngsters.
The debt-plagued big top is worked by characters who might have formed a world of their own oddball camaraderie but who do not emerge from the screen to claim sympathy as in Leoncavallo’s “a heart beats inside a clown” I Pagliacci or like Browning’s sideshow freaks, Fellini’s tiny Roman circus folk or Bergman’s traveling troupe. Of them, widowed Ramiro (Manuel Tallafé) does understand the misfit but unaccountably becomes his accomplice in insanity when the story moves back to the catacombs and cross of the Valley. “Mated with a clown,” beautiful bewigged acrobat and later Kojak men’s-club dancer Natalia (Carolina Bang) is attracted by Javier’s newness and Boy-Scout refusal to kowtow to Sergio’s drunken crudeness, but she also nastily toys with his virgin naïveté and cannot resist the rough sex of her man Sergio.
The clash is inevitable, over the woman and over mutual public humiliations. Contrary to expectation, it is Javier who deteriorates. Linked Forrest Gump-like by coincidence to headline events -- ETA’s inaugural, spectacular Operation Ogre; the Robin Hood escapades of folk hero El Lute -- he runs amok, has wild animals rain upon him, eviscerates an elk, is captured by a vengeful coronel (Sancho Gracia), obliged to carry a dead game bird in his mouth, savagely scars his enemy and then himself and, in bishop’s mitre and perverted pierrot garb crossed by bandoliers, runs around in an ice-cream truck with an arsenal of firepower.
Not more verbally obscene than actual everyday Castilian, the movie does not offer sex or repression as a causal factor. Indeed, one is hard-pressed to see a reason for anything in director-writer Álex de la Iglesia’s The Last Circus. When the candidate for hero becomes a sadomasochistic circus of horrors unto himself, one longs for the mindless cartoon violence of other fare that is forgettable but not cruel and in which the good guys are stock but still better than the baddies.
(Released by Magnolia Pictures and rated "R" for brutal and bloody violence throughout, some strong sexual content, nudity and language.)