An unassuming older man with salt and pepper hair and small-framed eyeglasses stands in front of a full crowd and proclaims with a smile pouring through his beard that there can be no laughter without suffering. He says, “To enjoy life, you must be a bad person.”
He then reveals the good news that we’re all bad people before pointing out that the money he used to make his film could have been used to save lives, and since we’re enjoying what he’s made, we’re all complicit in their deaths.
Normally, that might sound like dire claptrap from an over-sensitive prude, but the older gentleman on stage is Alex de la Iglesia, and he says every word with such child-like wonder and humor that it’s impossible not to recognize that 1) he’s right 2) he’s not judging and 3) he’s made a brilliant film about it.
The Last Circus (also known as Balada Triste and A Sad Trumpet Ballad) is a whirlwind that examines two clowns, and their equally violent love of a beautiful acrobat. Javier (Carlos Areces) never had a childhood because the Spanish Civil War took it and his father from him. He decides to go into the family business as a clown, but he becomes a sad clown because he can’t make children laugh. He’s professionally the butt of the joke. He falls in love with Natalia (Carolina Bang), but she belongs to the abusive silly clown Sergio (Antonio de la Torre). What results is what always happens whenever two insane men battle over one gorgeous woman.
The visuals that live inside the world of The Last Circus feel simultaneously like the London of Children of Men and the vibrant big top of Big Fish. The deep reds and yellows stand out like the final fighters left alive in a world converted to gray scale. It all mirrors the constant state of fear under the Franco regime mixed with the cautious optimism of the 1970s.
Inhabiting that world is a host of crushing performances from tragic figures brought to manic life by first rate actors. Areces swings from looking like the adult version of the child that got beaten up everyday at school to the alpha male who takes what he wants and loses touch with reality long enough to transform his face into a clown’s with the use of a red hot iron. De la Torre goes through a similar transformation, displaying a cunning acting talent that embodies the fierceness of a rabid dog let loose into a field of rabbits, and then growing into an apologetic presence that’s even more dangerous.
Rounding out the trio is Carolina Bang, who succeeds in being the epitome of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Beautiful, but mercurial, she’s more than happy to see you put in the hospital by her man, and willing to stroke your hair sweetly while explaining she’s going back to him.
There’s no doubt that the story here goes in some odd directions, but it all flows logically – perhaps the most frightening aspect of all. We see the psychological decline of multiple characters, but nothing ever seems all that fantastical. Even when Javier becomes one with nature (in a very literal sense) and seeks revenge on the man who killed his father, it’s all just another building block in the road to releasing his insanity in the form of a machine gun as he wanders the streets of the city dressed as a Pope Clown.
The intensity and weirdness is at every turn bolstered by a percussive score that only stops when he really wants the focus drawn solely to the insanity on screen. It’s absence only provides an unease at knowing that it’ll return with the full force of a goose-stepping army.
Of course, the political undertones are unmistakable, but the film survives on its own even without the metaphors underpinning it. Hell, de la Iglesia begins the film with shots of political leaders interspersed with classic monsters. It doesn’t get clearer than that. Seen in that light, The Last Circus transforms from a teeth-gritting story about tragic love into a teeth-gritting story about a country loved violently by multiple parties. Everyone wants what’s best for the country (because they’re in love with her beauty and acrobatic skill), but with everyone fighting against each other, the country is who ultimately suffers, and we all get a little bit crazier.
It would be a shame to steal from the impact of the last act, but what happens to the clowns and their acrobat is a thing of devastating beauty. All of the elements of the film come together in a thrilling climax on top of the massive cross overlooking a former work camp. It’s explosive, pure, and impossible in its effect.
Over all, the film is incredible. In the oldest sense of that word, it is awe-inspiring and grotesque. Stunning and heartfelt. It is a love letter to a country, a time and a frowning clown singing mournfully about a weeping trumpet. We are all bad people. We hurt the ones we love. There can be no laughter without suffering.