Alex de la Iglesia is just about the textbook definition of a ‘cult’ director. First breaking through in 1993 with the sci-fi lunacy of Accion Mutante before making a splash internationally with the comedy/horror The Day of the Beast. He has forged a path of unhinged films, populated with idiosyncratic and often grotesque characters, laced with a fine line in black humour.
The most notable exception to this pattern was his last outing, which was expected to be his Hollywood breakthrough. The John Hurt/Elijah Woods starrer The Oxford Murders was a tepid, by-the-numbers thriller, perhaps providing conclusive evidence that de la Iglesia is a director at his best when allowed to run wild.
And so to The Last Circus, where things run very wild, indeed.
The story begins in 1937, as a group of circus performers are press-ganged into service during the Spanish Civil War. Amongst these is a clown, still clad in make-up, wig and a dress. Armed only with a machete, he promptly wades into the opposing troops, cutting down and all sundry before he is finally overwhelmed and imprisoned.
Fast forward 36 years to the mirror image date of 1973 and the clown’s son Javier (Carlos Areces) has grown up and has followed his footsteps into the circus. His lot is not to be the star, the happy clown, rather he is to be the straight man, the sad clown, the butt of all the jokes. This is because his childhood of misery has left him devoid of mirth, but full of tragedy.
The happy clown is Sergio (Antonio de la Torre), a charismatic superstar. The children love him, but his confidence bleeds into arrogance and alcoholism. When drinking, he has a tendency to abuse his wife, the acrobat Natalia (Carolina Bang)…who Javier also falls for. It is a love triangle that rapidly spirals into violence, madness and murder.
The Last Circus plays out as a political allegory. Javier is the Republicans, wracked by internal turmoil while Sergio is Franco’s fascist Nationalists, violent and strong of purpose. Between them is Natalia, representing Spain herself, torn between two desires. This metaphoric approach gives the piece added depth, but sacrifices elements of the storytelling. The plot flow becomes increasingly stretched as the movie progresses and all of the characters become almost completely sympathetic as the madness and atrocities pile up on both sides.
Offsetting this stumble on the scripting side of things is some amazing work behind the camera. The production design is sumptuous and evocative, but the cinematography is never less than stunning. Deep shadows abound, with a rich, gothic, almost fairytale feeling throughout. This is one beautiful looking film.
The acting is more of a mixed bag, although de la Torre is the clear stand-out, chewing the scenery with aplomb whenever he gets the chance. Special mention must also be made of Bang, who is quite ridiculously attractive throughout. Oh, and she is also de la Iglesia’s real-life partner, for trivia fans.
An ambitious movie, The Last Circus starts off strongly, but loses its way somewhat in the second half. Perhaps fulfilling the requirements of allegory meant, in this case, a less enjoyable narrative. Still, the visuals are terrific and the invention on show means the movie is never dull. Perhaps a misfire, but a compelling one all the same.
The extras are limited to just the trailer for the film and trailers for some other titles from the Madman Entertainment catalogue. A shame, really, as a commentary track ruminating on the symbolism in the film could have been a terrific addition.