The prologue for Alex de la Iglesia's new film, "The Last Circus," which premiered at last year's Venice Film Festival but is just now making its debut on American shores, is a kicky, grindhouse shock about a traveling circus interrupted by rebels who recruit the performers to participate in the burgeoning Spanish Civil War. The show's lead clown (Santiago Segura) is handed a machete and forced to stay in his whimsical, gender-bending costume, since the rebel leader says it will scare the shit out of the enemy. And, for whole minutes, we watch as the clown grittily slices and dices members of Franco's fascist army. After the "happy clown" has been captured and interred in a mine, we see him have a conversation with his young son. His father tells him to keep up the clown tradition of his family, but instead of a happy clown, he'll be a sad clown. Then, in a tragic/comic moment, his father gets trampled to death by a horse and the son ends up maiming a colonel.
If you get a certain sense of déjà vu from these early sequences, what with the Spanish Civil War setting and the mixture of grim reality and occasionally-even-grimmer fantasy, it's certainly reasonable to draw parallels to the smaller scale work of director Guillermo del Toro, whose "Pan's Labyrinth" and "The Devil's Backbone" were both set in that period and defined largely by a mixture of the literal and fantastical. But a bigger clue to the film's touchstones may be the film's propulsive title sequence, which is equal parts Sergio Leone and Famous Monsters of Filmland.
As a strumming soundtrack hums, we see images of the Spanish Civil War play out against pop culture moments from the same timeframe – things like people doing the Twist, and frequently, flashes of movie monsters of the time such as Frankenstein and Dracula. The Universal monster parallels become clearer later on, but the opening sequence provides just the right amount of context.
The film proper opens in 1970, near the end of Franco's reign, with the happy clown's son, Javier (Carlos Areces), now a grown (and chubby) man. He's interviewing for a ragtag circus troupe that brings to mind the films of both Federico Fellini and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The problem, of course, is that the circus is being led by a "happy clown" named Sergio (Antonio de la Torre), a sadistic bastard whose big introduction is the delivery of a horrifyingly off-color joke about a dead baby. Adding further complications, and lending the appropriate amount of apocalyptic gloom to a movie called "The Last Circus," is the fact that Javier is in love with Natalia (Carolina Bang), the circus' gorgeous acrobat who is engaged in an uneasily tempestuous, abusive relationship with Sergio.
Never content to follow a single narrative path for too long, "The Last Circus" veers this way and that, but really lets its intentions be known when Javier, in a misplaced go at chivalry, brutally disfigures Sergio and is forced to go on the run, literally turning into an animal that lives in the forest, scavenging for food. After he runs afoul of Colonel Salcedo (Sancho Gracia), the military man responsible for his father's death (who Javier critically wounded), Javier all but loses his mind – he chemically bleaches his skin, mutilates his cheeks in an attempt at permanent makeup, and jaggedly crafts clown clothes out of religious garments, seeking revenge on both Sergio, for what Javier perceives as his injustices against Natalia and the circus, and society at large (a horrifying clown, packing two large machine guns, is an uncomfortable image to say the least).
It's often hard not to get caught up in the sheer gusto of "The Last Circus," especially when de la Iglesia begins to liberally mix real events from the Franco regime with the more whimsical elements of the film. De la Iglesia is clearly a gifted filmmaker, and while he doesn't exhibit the same level of artistry or control of his craft that his contemporary del Toro does, the parallels are easy to draw.
The problem, of course, with a movie like this, is that it ends up choking on its own hugeness. Javier, as the title sequence suggests, is a tragic monster figure, like Frankenstein's creature or King Kong, an outcast from society and a captive of love, outwardly disfigured but inwardly lovable, except that by the time the movie reaches its operatic conclusion, his motives seem less pure and just as twisted as everyone else. (Sergio, at this point also sporting cracked clown make-up that would make Heath Ledger's Joker from "The Dark Knight" cackle in jealousy, is the more transparently villainous monster.)
The movie never sits still long enough to create its own silly-gory groove, and everything is so over the top with extreme violence playfully mixed with equally extreme sex and terrorism portrayed as one part of a very loud, very political three-ring circus, that it's hard to ever get a handle on anything that's tangibly relatable. (Earlier scenes, which share a De Palma-like fascination with voyeuristic obsession, are easier to connect with but make up for the briefest chunk of the film's running time.) There are some fascinating ideas to consider within the film, and some genuinely tour-de-force set pieces, like the climax which is set on top of a giant cross, one that Javier's father toiled to complete for Franco and is now filled with refugees from the circus. It's just a bummer that all of the wonderful visual flourishes and narrative left turns weren't done in the service of a sturdier, less depressing story. For all its diversions, "The Last Circus" is badly in need of a tighter ringmaster. [B]