Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Last Circus: Grade B

The Last Circus (Balada Triste de Trompeta) (2010)

Carlos Areces, Antonio de la Torre, Carolina Bang; Writer-director Álex de la Iglesia.(Spanish, subtitled).

This is one of the strangest movies I have seen in a long time; a dark, violent, horror movie; a bloody splatter picture; also a farce, a cutting political satire, and a sweet romantic comedy. It is so mind-blowingly, creatively original that I have to give it high marks. Its 107 minutes grind on too long however and the story degenerates into meaningless chaos as it comes to its prolonged, tragic finale, so it gets graded down for that.

Set in the 1930’s and the Spanish civil war, a group of circus performers is forcibly drafted into Franco’s army, but the head clown refuses and ridicules the nasty officer. For his efforts he is imprisoned, tortured, and killed, but not before he advises his confused young son to be a sad clown, not a happy clown, because life is no longer happy. The son grows up and joins a circus as an incredibly incompetent sad clown. He is so bad that he actually makes people laugh. Ironically, the circus’s happy clown is actually a psychotic woman-beater who lords it over him just as the fascist soldier humiliated his father. The pathetic, dumpy and weak sad clown naively falls in love with the happy clown’s girl, the beautiful trapeze artist, and is consequently beaten to a pulp. Retaliating, he attacks the happy clown, ripping his face apart with a farrier’s hook, in one of several extremely violent, bloody scenes, that are yet somehow squirmingly comedic because of the costumes and sets.

The sad clown escapes the police by running into the forest and living naked in a cave like an animal. A hunter finds him and takes him home as a curiosity, and you’ll never guess, the hunter is the very army officer who killed his father. The sad clown plots his revenge, but first he improvises a fantastic clown costume out of draperies and props suggestive of papal garb.

But suddenly the happy clown reappears, not dead after all, but horribly disfigured, in a fantastic makeup job. Further tragicomic-horror clown battles ensue, including a chase up a church steeple reminiscent of the chase up Mount Rushmore in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. There are also visual allusions to Picasso’s Guernica, Puccini’s Pagliacci, and to other historical and cinematic landmarks.

The original title, A Sad Trumpet Ballad, may have some significance that escapes me, but is otherwise just the name of the musical sound track. The cinematography, and especially the lighting, are exceptionally striking throughout the movie. Costumes and makeup are unbelievably creative, as is the writing itself. Directing is excellent and well paced, until the last act. Violence and sexuality are integrated into the allegorical civil war theme and used well. Ultimately, the movie does not present a single, easy to grasp political message, or comedic tone, or horror theme, but is a dizzying pastiche of many of those, engaging the viewer on multiple levels of relentless creative turmoil.

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