I had a good feeling about Alex De La Iglesia's The Last Circus. That feeling did not leave me as I experienced it for the first time. That feeling became a great feeling, and I felt myself being transported to a familiar place that echoed Todd Browning's Freaks, Jodorowsky's Santa Sangre, Cardiff's The Freakmaker, and Schlondorf's The Tin Drum. It was a pleasure to visit that milieu again. I felt like I was home.
What we have here is a tale of crazy love tucked into a Spanish Civil War macro. It's a cautionary fable of how crazed one can become when one loves so much. Javier (Carlos Areces), a Sad Clown, finds a reason to be happy when he meets the acrobatic Natalia (Carolina Bang), the wife of Sergio (Antonio de la Torre), a Happy Clown who stands in for Franco in our macro. Javier rushes to Natalia's side after she takes yet another brutal beating from her husband, whose happy face turns sad when he drinks. Javier's love for the abused circus performer robs him of discretion, and it isn't long before Sergio learns of the illicit affair.
Sergio's anger at being cuckholded ignites a string of violent reprisals and grotesque disfigurements. These signal a dramatic escalation in the narrative, and put a leering smile on my face, inspiring me to celebrate the audaciousness of The Last Circus.
The wonderful Santiago Segura (Torrente!) plays the father of the film's Sad Clown.
Iglesia's latest (he's made many) is a rich, ruddy-colored explosion of passion that sometimes feels like a bloody, undiscovered Fellini film. It possesses the Italian master's love of the large and the lewd, and it doesn't retreat when it starts heading towards a Grand Guignol resolution. Although it's boisterous and operatic, it's also delicate, especially in its early scenes where we learn of Javier's background (a wonderful cameo with Santiago Segura) and share beautiful intimacies with Javier and Natalia.
More than any other film that he's directed, Iglesia gets the balance mostly right with this one. I've often found his films -- Accion mutante, for example -- lacking in contrast, or guilty of damning their greatness -- Perdita Durango -- with a little too much of a good thing. Customarily, he throws in too many elements so you're left with a kitchen sink full of junk. I wasn't a fan of his 800 Bullets, although I admired it, but I really enjoyed The Perfect Crime, a 2004 comedy that smelt like Almodovar but tasted like Iglesia off the drugs (figuratively speaking). Although the last fifteen minutes of The Last Circus gives us frosting on top of frosting, it retains its dignity, nevertheless, and left me sated.
Spain's economy may be in the doldrums, but it's cinema remains alive and innovative.