Sunday, October 30, 2011

Film Review: The Last Circus (2010)

The Spanish title is A Sad Trumpet Ballad
If this film can claim nothing else, it's assuredly the most violent circus movie ever. And it's one of the best films I've seen so far this year. It's definitely not for all tastes; you'll need a high tolerance for over-the-top, operatic storytelling and extreme imagery, but it's certainly a masterpiece of visual imagination.

The director is Alex de la Iglesia, who I'm completely unfamiliar with. His directing style is reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's (Micmacs, Amelie), both men filling their films with outlandish and striking images, and characters who are as odd and eccentric as the visuals.

The Last Circus begins in Madrid in 1937 in the early stages of the Spanish Civil War. A Republican Army officer pressgangs all the men in a circus troupe to fight against the fascist Nationalists, and in the ensuing battle a circus clown is captured. He and other prisoners are put to work after the war building an enormous monument to the Nationalist war dead. The clown's son, Javier, tries to rescue him, but his father is killed during the escape. Before dying, Javier's father tells him to seek revenge. The story now jumps to 1973 as Javier, now a blobby man in his 40s, joins a circus as the "sad" clown. The "happy" clown is Sergio, an absolute brute who drinks and beats his girlfriend Natalia. Sergio is the star attraction of the circus. Javier falls for Natalia and attracts the wrath of Sergio. The rest of the story is better seen than described.

Iglesia tells his story in images, and his inventiveness never flags. The opening credits and the initial battle form the most visually dynamic opening sequence I've seen in years, and the final ten minutes or so are just as strong. Iglesia doesn't just string together eye-catching scenes for their own sake; he maintains a strong storyline throughout, albeit it's a story that can be a bit loopy and improbable. The only problem with this film is that it's filled, I assume, with political commentary and symbolism that's completely opaque to a non-Spaniard such as myself. This didn't lessen my enjoyment of the film, it just annoyed me to think that if I was Spanish I'd be enjoying it even more. The Last Circus is one of those films that celebrates that fact that film is a visual medium first and foremost, and not just a recording device for dialogue and images cooked up in a computer.

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