PLOT: An unusual love triangle plays out amongst members of a circus towards the end of Franco's fascist regime in 1973 Spain.
REVIEW: Funny, imaginative, thoroughly engrossing - and quite frequently bonkers - THE LAST CIRCUS ( or "Balada triste de trompeta") is a nearly indescribable journey; a tragi-comic tale rife with parable and obviously deeply thought-out and felt by its director, Álex de la Iglesia, the film is equal parts operatic fantasy and trippy fever-dream. There's no guarantee that you'll take to its singular vision, but there is a guarantee that you won't see another movie like it this - or any other - year.
Opening with a sequence set during the height of the Spanish Civil War, we're treated right off the bat to the surreal sight of a clown, recruited by the Spanish Army to help fend off the onslaught of Franco's rebel Nationalists, going hog wild on a barrage of enemy rebels with a machete. (And that's the least of the clown-related insanity THE LAST CIRCUS has to offer. This is where all those with a fear of clowns are warned to keep their distance.) The clown is eventually captured by the rebels, who are in the process of overtaking the country, and forced into manual labor. His son, an aspiring clown named Javier, attempts to break his father free, but the effort ends in tragedy, leaving Javier alone and slightly unhinged by the event.
Years later, Javier (now played with plump sweetness by Carlos Areces) is attempting to launch his own career. Playing the role of the "sad" clown (because, as his father told him, he's simply not funny), Javier catches on with a circus dominated by Sergio (Antonio de la Torre), a "funny" clown who, while a splendid performer beloved by the children, is an angry, drunken lout behind the scenes. Among those in Sergio's thrall is the angelic acrobat Natalia (Carolina Bang), who takes an instant liking to the childlike Javier. Before long, both the sad and funny clowns are battling each other for the acrobat's affections, while in the background Franco's regime is coming to a close in the midst of violent upheaval.
The synopsis, such as it is, does no justice to THE LAST CIRCUS' oddball personality or its warped sense of humor - to say nothing of its striking visual style and periodic moments of shocking morbidity. De la Iglesia stylistically brings to mind the work of Federico Fellini (some of these characters could have been transported directly from one of Fellini's memorable carnivals) and Guillermo del Toro (the story and tone is alternately sweet and horrific, sad and absurd). Don't let that take away from the fact that this director establishes an original aesthetic early on; his movie is always providing unexpected pleasures, both visually and narratively. To say where we end up is not at all where we began is a severe understatement.
The film is anchored by two truly splendid performances. Areces' Javier starts off as a lovable man-child but evolves (or devolves, if you prefer) into a wild, enraged beast; a man haunted by his past and threatened by his surroundings who finds a certain kind of solace in madness. The actor pulls off both extremes amazingly in a performance that can be called transformative, for starters. De la Torre's Sergio, on the other hand, is a completely loathsome monster who, like so many men of his disposition, has an uncanny ability to beguile the ones he hurts the most. Charm is an even more effective weapon than physical violence for a man like Sergio, and de la Torre's complete understanding of this makes him a seriously a gripping presence.
THE LAST CIRCUS, for all its unique whimsy and daring, is certainly not for all tastes. The story's charming beginning slowly grows into something more creepy and fantastical; the third act in particular, which ventures into bouts of disfigurement, murder and grandiose chaos, risks turning off all but the most faithful and curious of film aficionados. But, for those open to the bizarre experience, THE LAST CIRCUS is an unorthodox, delightfully unnerving, highly amusing experience.