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The Last Circus | Review

All the World Loves a Clown….Horror Film.

The word ‘subtlety’ does not come to mind when thinking of Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia’s work, but rather broad, silly humor (95’s The Day of the Beast) often crossed with gruesome violence or grotesque flourishes (97’s Dance with the Devil). The Last Circus, a bizarre horror comedy lobbed over a network of historical symbolism, not unlike the works of Carlos Saura or Guillermo Del Toro, happens to be one of the strangest and original pieces of cinema one could hope to see this year. Subtlety is still not a word to describe this film, but it features some elusive implications and images that are eerie and unforgettable. Following on the heels of his 2008 English speaking debut, the dismal and dull The Oxford Murders, the Venice FIlm Festival winning Silver Lion and the Best Screenplay awarded and internationally known as A Sad Trumpet Ballad exceeds expectations.

The Last Circus opens with an awesome credit sequence juxtaposing clowns, Christ, movie monsters, and revolutionaries. The narrative begins in 1937 at a clown circus performance, where we see a Happy clown and a Sad clown performing. They are quickly interrupted by Franco’s army and the Republicans demand that anyone able to carry a weapon join them immediately. Unable to change out of his attire, the Happy clown is given a machete and instructed to engage in hand-to-hand combat. The next minute, it’s as if we stepped into a Rob Zombie wet dream. Slaughtering an entire platoon single-handedly, Happy clown is sent to a work-camp, and when his teenage son Javier visits him, he informs his son that he cannot follow in the familial footsteps as a Happy clown, he can only be a Sad clown. Since Javier did not have a childhood and only knew death, he could never make people laugh. However, his father adds, the only thing that can thwart fate is revenge.

The film then jumps to 1973 Madrid, and the film has established a serious set of inverses (1937 vs. 1973, happy and sad, Nationalists Vs. Republicans, laughing or screaming) for interpretation. We see Javier (Carlos Areces) as a fat, Sad clown, applying for a job at a circus. As he is introduced to the circus staff he meets the beautiful acrobat, Natalia (Carolina Bang), who, at times, depending on the wig, is a doppelganger for Bridget Fonda. She descends from above and we see her smiling upside down. We’re always told to turn a frown upside down, so what’s an upside down smile? Javier is instantly smitten, but he learns that she belong to his boss Sergio (Antonio de la Torre), the Happy clown. It’s quite well known that Sergio has a drinking problem and systematically beats Natalia, which we also quickly become privy to. It seems that Natalia likes the rough sex with Sergio, but she wants someone kind and gentle like Javier to protect her. The clowns lock horns over the beautiful woman, resulting in Javier horrifically disfiguring Sergio and running off naked into the wilderness where eats large animals killed in a hunter’s trap with his bare hands.

Javier then just happens to be discovered by a hunter that was a Colonel he blinded in the Spanish Civil War. If there are any problems with the movie’s chain of events, it’s at this storybook fantasy coincidental moment. But then, the film isn’t far removed from a nightmarish fairytale (Iglesia directly references the murderous Blue Beard), so some of the more minor plot holes are easily forgivable. The Colonel humiliates Javier by treating him like one of his hunting dogs until Javier suffers a psychic breakdown. Proceeding to Tammy Faye Baker his face, he fashions his visage into that of a permanently mottled fright clown, and sets off on a rampage to find his love, Natalia. The film’s final sequence leading to the climax is nothing short of astonishing. It has a moment of such grotesque, tragic, beauty, that audiences will easily be transfixed by the scope of it all.

On the surface, this bloodthirsty tale of psychotic clowns fighting for the love of one beautiful woman (if they couldn’t be clowns, they’d be murderers, they tell us) is really a metaphor for two political parties fighting over one country. No one is left unscathed, and all have been horrifically disfigured—so much so that there’s no difference between the monsters. Happy or sad, Nationalist or Republican, laughing or screaming, all are the same, depending on the point of view. Javier declares towards the film’s conclusion that “Death unites people.” No, death is where we all end up. Revenge unites people.

Rating 4 stars

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Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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