The Film– In 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, a circus clown is drafted into combat by the rebel militia general. Armed with only a machete and still in full clown get-up, the “Happy Clown” butchers countless Government soldiers before being detained. His son, Javier, watches as his dad is taken to military prison for his actions.
Several years pass, and Javier goes to visit his father. He tells him he aspires to be a clown too, but his father insists he be a “Sad Clown” because he has suffered too much to ever be funny. Javier decided to break his father out of the prison, but everything backfires when he is trampled by Coronel Salcedo‘s horse. The incident leaves the Coronel blind in one eye and Javier’s father dead.
In 1973, Javier has landed a gig as the Sad Clown at a local circus, being abused and degraded by the Happy Clown, Sergio. The two both agree that if they weren’t acting as clowns, they would be murderers. Sergio is married to the beautiful ribbon dancer, Natalia- but his nightly drunken beatings have left her detached. Javier is smitten by her, and the two begin a non-sexual relationship behind Sergio’s back.
One night at a carnival, Javier and Natalia profess their love for one another- but Sergio has followed. Javier tires to protect the ribbon dancer from the Happy Clown’s drunken fury, but Sergio beats him to a pulp with the strong man mallet. The date ends with the Happy Clown in police custody and the Sad Clown at the ER.
At the hospital, Javier begs Natalia to leave Sergio for him, but she can’t. As the troupe leave for the night, he breaks out and heads back to the circus for Natalia. Earlier Sergio had been released from jail, and Javier arrives to find the two fucking in the back of a tent. He flips out, beating Sergio with a trumpet so viciously that the brass instrument peels the flesh from his face.
A horrified Natalia forces Javier to leave, and with the help of the circus performers, takes Sergio to the closest doctor… who happens to be a veterinarian. After some persuasion, the vet fixes Sergio’s face as best he can, leaving him a scarred, stapled mess. He stumbles off into the night, and the circus never sees him again.
Meanwhile, Javier has become completely detached by the incident, stripping nude and living in overgrown ruins in the forest nearby. While being attacked by a boar one day, the feral Javier is rescued by Coronel Salcedo, who immediately recognizes him as the boy who caused his injury nearly 40 years ago. The Coronel captures Javier and trains him to act as a bird dog during his hunting trips.
The circus falls into bankruptcy and closes down, forcing the performers to take jobs at the seedy nightclub Kojak. Sergio re-emerges, trying to woo his wife back to him. Despite initial fear, she slowly begins to re-kindle the relationship. Javier suffers a mental breakdown at the Coronel’s mansion, stitching together a clown suit that mimics the pope’s robes and scaring his face using acid and a clothes iron.
After fully becoming the “Sad Clown”, Javier goes on a rampage in the mansion with a set of machine guns the Coronel had, killing everyone. He sets out determined to find his Natalia, only to have Sergio steal her away once again. Sergio pieces together that Javier and the ex-performers are working together, and sets out to find their hideout. Everything comes to a violent conclusion when the disfigured Happy Clown and Sad Clown fight for Natalia one last time.
I really feel obliged to give every reader a heads up about this review- prepare for gushing praise, because this is one of the best movies I’ve seen all year. I’m dead serious, I fucking loved this movie.
It’s funny, dark, lighthearted, depressing, romantic, violent, bloody, political, and whimsical at the exact same time- now hay many movies do you see with that criteria per year? Just the opening credits alone are enough to entice the viewer, combining still images of Spanish political officials, clowns, and grotesque still frames from horror films like Cannibal Holocaust.
The first thing that’s going to strike you is the beautifully intense imagery and the stark humor. I mean, the thought of a cross-dressing clown with a full beard ruthlessly slashing soldiers apart with a machete is about as bizarrely hilarious as it can get, yet it still keeps artistic integrity. Then, about five minutes later, the mood seamlessly changes to uneasy anxiety while the two clowns are having the whole “if I weren’t a clown I would be a murderer” conversation.
That’s what makes The Last Circus such a powerful and fantastic film. By having an overall atmosphere of bleak humor, you don’t have to change much to get the desired emotional response. Sure the settings change, but the overall look and feel stays pretty much constant during the whole film. Instead of letting the set pieces (which are fantastic) talk for the characters like so many movies do, the characters actually cause the transition from humor to depression.
Now with all the visuals talk out of the way, time to move on to the plot, which is simply brilliant. It’s essentially taking an almost whimsical story and warping it into something dark. I mean, does the outline “a happy clown and a sad clown fight for the affection of a ribbon dancer” not sound like something pulled straight from one of Grimm’s fairy tales? And what’s really impressive is how that childishness those stories are full of actually transfers to this film.
The characters are great as well, able to pull of the absurdity just as well as the normal. Not every second of The Last Circus is bat-shit-insane, so when things are “calm”, the characters are too. When everything goes into chaos, they do as well. I’ve never seen a film rely so much on characters like this one, but that’s what makes it such a treat. Heavy visuals have to have equally heavy characters; otherwise it just seems like a pretentious artsy fartsy mess. Alex de la Iglesia knew this, and by mixing equal parts, he’s created one of the best films of the decade.
If you haven’t noticed by now, I’ve tried to avoid plot summary as much as possible. It’s such a powerful story, and to spoil and of it would be a disservice to anyone who reads my review. But, I have to make one comment about the ending. All those little balances through the film, like happy and sad, funny and dark, ect, are all personified by the last thirty seconds. It’s an almost tear-inducing scene that shows just how much thought went into this movie.
An incredibly beautiful film that teeters between depression and mania, The Last Circus is one of the best damn movies you will see this year. The smart, character driven story backed by intense visuals and dark humor creates a one of a kind atmosphere that you don’t want to leave behind, even when it starts to hurt. Alex de la Iglesia has crafted a masterpiece that’s not to be missed.
The Package– The transfer is clear and crisp, showcasing the vibrant colors while still keeping the bleak grey and black in check. There really isn’t a thing for me to nitpick here, Magnolia has done a fantastic job with this release.
Magnolia has included two audio tracks, the original Spanish and an English dub- both in 5.1. I always prefer to watch a film in its original language, so I went with the Spanish track. The subtitles were spot on, the volume and effects were terrific, and everything works perfectly. A word of warning about the English track though, it’s hammy as all hell.
The Last Circus comes with a making of featurette, behind-the-scenes segments, a visual effects featurette, the U.S. and international trailers, and trailers for other Magnolia releases. The behind the scenes stuff is always fun to check out, and the visuals featurette is, of course, a must watch as well. Overall a solid package that makes this one of the must-own releases of the year.