Rewind Review: 2010’s ‘The Last Circus’

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The Last Circus is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  The title is clearly an allusion to The Last Picture Show, a cinematic celebration of cinema itself.  It’s got all the historical resonance of a Guillermo del Toro movie with the over-the-top violence of a Tarantino flick–along with a heavy dose of the darkest David-Lynchian surrealism.  It’s rare for a film to kick off with as much immediate subtext; the opening credits are a kaleidoscope of images presented with an almost schizophrenic veracity to a throbbing rock soundtrack.  At first, the images are exclusively culled from archival footages of the Spanish Civil War. Eventually, a clear juxtaposition emerges: Fictional monsters versus real ones.  There’s Franco followed by Frankenstein and the Wolf Man, along with images of war victims followed by an infamous still pulled from Cannibal Holocaust.  And yet it’s clear: Hollywood’s worst offenders can’t hold a flame to factual evil.  These and other disturbing dichotomies set the mood for an absolutely captivating story of love, war, and revenge.

Check out my review after the jump.

Official Synopsis:  1937, Spain is 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, where he single handedly massacres an entire platoon. Fast forward to 1973, the tail end of the Franco regime. Javier, the son of the clown, dreams of following in his father’s career footsteps, but has seen too much tragedy in his life – he’s simply not funny and is only equipped to play the role of the Sad Clown. He finds work in a circus where he befriends an outlandish cast of characters, but as the Sad Clown he must take the abuse of the brutish Happy Clown Sergio, who humiliates Javier daily in the name of entertainment. — (C) Official Site

The Last Circus doesn’t just take place in the midst of war–it is a war.  The Happy Clown and the Sad Clown are as oppositional as Comedy and Tragedy, black and white, love and hate, yin and yang, good and evil.  It’s that most classic Battle Royale.  Governments are fond of portraying wars in a similar context, always painting themselves as the Light of the Savior and their enemies as minions of Darkness.  It’s a false dichotomy that distracts us from the reality of our opponent’s humanity.  But when a war inevitably drags, both sides slide lose all sense of morality and slide towards the Abyss.  And so it is with the Happy Clown and the Sad Clown: They soon become indistinguishable, violent fiends scarred by battle and deformed by rage, locked in an endless battle that may sometimes wane, but will never end.

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Writer/director Álex de la Iglesia (Witching & Bitching) is a Spanish filmmaker well known for invoking the grotesque in his explorations of dark themes like murder and death.  While most of his films can be described as dark comedies, he’s clearly a skilled practitioner of drama and horror (a rare and powerful combination indeed)–AND he’s a comic book artist to boot.  In The Last Circus, the man clearly utilized every tool in his arsenal.

While he never directly preys on those who suffer coulrophobia, the psychological term for the fear of clowns, anyone who’s squeamish about them will certainly struggle with the imagery in The Last Circus.  Even if you normally wouldn’t bat an eye-lash, the clowns in this movie are… fucking ghastly, easily putting Christopher Nolan’s Joker to shame.  But the real horror of the film is much more brutal and profound: Bodily mutilations, soul-crushing degradations, the inexplicable attraction towards abuse, the madness of obsession and more awaits those who watch.  It culminates in a dizzying conclusion as fantastic as a Marvel movie, as gut-wrenching as Seven–more haunting than any tale of supernatural terrors.

It’s not a perfect movie; it’s uneven and, truthfully, I can just imagine a feminist’s view of the film’s female lead, Natalia (Carolina Bang)–and it isn’t good.  It’s not that Bang is a poor actress or isn’t convincing as this captivating and complicated character (she knocks it out of the park, in fact), it’s just that she fucking sucks.  She’s embodies the absolute darkest elements of female sexuality: Violence, manipulation, recklessness, selfishness, and, well, all around chicken-headedness.  I’m not going to reveal the details of the love-triangle at the center of The Last Circus, needless to say, Natalia’s hardly a passive participant.  And in a story that’s nothing if not a metaphor for war itself, what is de la Iglesia saying about the role of women in these atrocities?  Does he actually mean to imply that, at their core, all conflicts are really just competitions for sex?  That the drive for power and control is essentially geared towards getting laid by hot chicks?  It’s an interesting theory, for sure, but back to Natalia: It’s not just that she’s a mean character, it’s that I really fucking hate her.  If that’s what de la Iglesia wanted, then Bravo!  If not, well, I’m not going to accuse a guy I don’t know of being a misogynist, but I’d hypothesize that there’s definitely a woman out there who did a real number on him!  Then again, isn’t the point of these extreme forms of entertainment (horror movies) to illicit  raw,visceral reactions?  Absolutely (so I guess I’m back to “Bravo!”).

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As important as Natalia is in terms of character motivation, this film belongs to the two male leads: Sad Clown, Javier (played by Carlos Areces) and his natural nemesis, the Happy Clown, Sergio (played by Antonio de la Torre).  The struggle these two characters wage (and the themes they represent) is nothing short of epic: High in drama, gore, and firepower–with more back-and-forth action than an NBA Playoff Game!  Both characters endure dramatic and shocking transformations throughout.  At first, we fear Sergio and pity Javier.  As the film progresses, our sympathy for Sergio swells, along with a growing sense of dread regarding Javier.  Eventually, violence and hared turn them both into monsters.  The film’s final moments are absolutely devastating, a total indictment of the wartime mentality that equates happiness with vengeance.

The Last Circus is definitely grotesque, but it’s also gorgeous and glorious, where harsh realities swirl amongst fantastical surrealism to create a nightmare world darker than Gotham.  It isn’t a horror movie in the strictest sense; The Last Circus will appeal to fans of hard-core action (i.e marshal arts, spagetti westerns, etc.) but still requires relatively strong intestinal fortitude.  Even before the plot gains momentum, the story is completely captivating from the beginning.  Those with a deeper knowledge of Franco-era Spain will undoubtedly uncover many additional layers of subtext but, thematically, The Last Circus is less about the Spanish Civil War than it is about war in general.  If you’re looking for a film that is visually stunning, skillfully crafted, and devastatingly intense, look no further.

4 out of 5 Skull Heads

Trailer:  HERE

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Directed by Álex de la Iglesia
Produced by Vérane Frédiani
Gerardo Herrero
Franck Ribière
Written by Álex de la Iglesia
Starring Carlos Areces,
Antonio de la Torre Martín,
Carolina Bang
Music by Roque Baños
Cinematography Kiko de la Rica
Editing by Alejandro Lázaro
Studio Televisión Española,
Tornasol Films,
La Fabrique 2,
uFilm,
Canal+ España,
Castafiore Films
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About Saucy Josh

I write a blog for intelligent Horror movie aficionados called Blood and Guts for Grown Ups: https://bloodandgutsforgrownups.wordpress.com/ View all posts by Saucy Josh

3 responses to “Rewind Review: 2010’s ‘The Last Circus’

  • grotesque ground

    Yay! Amazing review! One of my favorite recent films. I saw it twice already and plan to watch it again soon. It’s so captivating and complex. I agree that the director used every tool in his arsenal here.
    I think that the original title (“Ballad of the Sad Trumpet”) song (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ipi9pFoIMS0) fits the movie perfectly. It’s exaggerated, emotional, tragic, and sung in clown make-up. The scene in the theater is amazing.
    Also the gore (the hunt and Franco!) is very clever here.
    And I like the character of Natalia. She wasn’t an innocent damsel in distress/hooker with a heart of gold, but a totally masochistic femme fatale. A complicated character indeed.
    Very intense movie, but not for everyone.

    • Saucy Josh

      Yeah, I like the litteral translation of the Spanish title as well, but I was so excited by the way The Last Circus evokes The Last Picture Show that I didn’t even mention it in my review– so I’m glad you brought it up! Thanks!

  • grotesque ground

    According to IMDb Carolina Bang and Alex de la Iglesia are a couple. Just so you know. 🙂

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