A year ago, I saw Alex De La Iglesia’s “The Last Circus” in successive screenings at the Toronto Film Festival and Fantastic Fest in Austin, making me crave a third screening ever since. It was around the same time de la Iglesia’s “The Oxford Murders,” an ill-fated Elijah Wood murder mystery that reeked of compromise after sitting on the now-defunct ThinkFilm’s shelf for two years, landed quickly on the shelves of Blockbuster when it finally did debut Stateside. Compromise is a word not to be used in the same sentence as the Spanish auteur, who may be the era’s bizarro heir to Billy Wilder when combining cinematic eloquence with wicked wit, qualities that only sporadically broke through in “Oxford,” but return at full flourish in his first film back on home soil.
Terra firma for De La Iglesia remains uncharted territory for others. Seriously mining the legacy of the Spanish civil war for the basis of a rivalry between two clowns — a funny one and a sad one, “The Last Circus” is a satisfying gorge on countless genres that’s thrillingly original in its own right. Javier, the sad clown (Carlos Areces) is assigned to his lot in life after coming from a long line of funny clowns that ends when his father explains to him that he's seen too much tragedy in his life to be funny, only minutes before his execution at the hands of a general in Franco's army.
Next thing you know, it's 1973 in Madrid and Javier is putting on bushy eyebrows and a single black teardrop down his face to perform in circus where he meets the beautiful and dangerous Natalia (Carolina Bang), who descends from the heavens twirling on a red ribbon and winds up being Javier's one-way ticket to hell when the two strike up an easy friendship and her jealous, abusive boyfriend Sergio (Antonio de la Torre) turns out to be the funny clown to his sad one. Upon their introduction, Sergio tells Javier if he weren't a clown, "I'd be a murderer."
De la Iglesia has been down this road of violent one-upsmanship before with 1999's "Dying of Laughter," but in weaving in actual historical events like the assassination of Blanco during the counter-cultural revolution, "The Last Circus" is one of his broadest films to date, both in terms of scope and its humor, which pulls no punches in showing a nude Javier stripping the bones of a dead deer carcass clean while hiding from Sergio in the forest or basking in the grandeur of a war sequence involving circus performers that is usually reserved for a Spielberg-Hanks World War II miniseries.
Fans of de la Iglesia will appreciate that his wild streak is back and while some might not spark to his occasionally outrageous sensibilities and asides, I found "The Last Circus" benefitted from a second viewing where I wasn't quite as caught up in his always clever visuals (he is shooting in and around a circus, after all), which allowed the story and political subtext to shine through.
Yet “The Last Circus” revels in its darkness, a tragedy that makes you feel the pain of Javier even if it’s more than willing to let you laugh at his expense. Comedies don’t come any blacker than this, but few filmmakers are able to do more with their palette than De La Iglesia.
"The Last Circus" opens in New York at the Cinema Village on August 19th. A full schedule of dates and theaters can be found here.