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Last Circus, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right."
5 stars

Alex de la Iglesia's new movie certainly qualifies as a circus - it's filled with bright colors and daring displays that look joyful while also tempting the audience with sex and violence. This makes perfect sense; De la Iglesia's best work has always come in the form of polished chaos, so these particular big tops are a fine place for him to do his thing.

The first circus we encounter is in 1937, where a Happy Clown (Santiago Segura) is entertaining children as the occasional gunshot from the Spanish Civil War is heard in the background. The performance is interrupted as the Nationalist forces show up to draft every able-bodied man into the army, including the clown, who is thrown into battle while still wearing his costume. In the aftermath, he tells his son Javier that even though clowning is in his blood, he will likely never be able to play the happy clown; he's seen too much to be anything but the sad one. And, indeed, when we meet Javier (Carlos Areces) again in 1973, that's the job he's taken with a struggling circus, being the butt of the smiling clown's jokes. Of course, behind the scenes, happy clown Sergio (Antonio de la Torre) is an angry drunk, and Javier being attracted to his girl Natalia (Carolina Bang) doesn't help matters.

In other hands, The Last Circus might be a simple tragic love story, maybe avant-garde (the likes of Fellini certainly liked their circuses back in the day). But this is an Alex de la Iglesia movie through and through - his first without his usual co-writer, Jorge Guerricaechevarría - and it is just packed with his signature slick camerawork, bizarre characters, and pitch-black comedy. It's the sort of movie that scores big laughs throughout, although one may be reluctant to relate just exactly which gags got them; a lot of bits just don't work out of context. De la Iglesia's movies have always had a bit of an edge to them, but this one seems to have the cynicism much closer to its heart; there's a meanness to it that parallels the way circus audiences laugh at the Happy Clown tormenting the Sad Clown.

Those analytical thoughts may come after the movie, but likely not during, because this film moves fast. De la Iglesia packs The Last Circus with strange scenarios and frequently send it skidding off in new directions, but he and editor Alejandro Lázaro do a quite fantastic job of squeezing all they can from their screwy situations while not letting any particular one overstay its welcome. There are moments when the aggressive pace causes the movie to stumble a little bit - in one case, the most direct route between two sections of the movie isn't exactly the one that makes the most sense - but it's generally better than the alternative of leaden quirkiness and pretension. De la Iglesia does a lot of clever things - having an officer comment about how a clown running toward them with a machete will scare the rebels lets the audience enjoy the absurdity of the situation, for instance.

As another example, Natalia seldom looks the same from one scene to the next; Carolina Bang is given a different wig and costume practically every time she appears; she's not just this particular woman putting Javier off balance, but every woman there is. Of course, some things stay the same - even the occasions when Natalia's palling around with Javier in a completely platonic way, she's got wide predator's eyes and a matching nature. Bang's pretty face and exaggerated hourglass figure certainly get her noticed, but she and the filmmakers do a fine job of making her character both fun and dangerous. Indeed, if you like reading into things, you could say she represents mid-twentieth-century Spain itself - beautiful, fierce, and wonderful, but held down and back by angry clowns.

Now, I don't know enough about recent Spanish history to say which clown more closely represents Franco (even with him appearing in the movie as a minor character), but Antonio de la Torre's Sergio certainly fits the role of the classical autocrat. De la Torre hits his character square on the head, putting a thin but real level of charisma over a truly repulsive personality, just enough so that the audience can see why he's been able to get away with being a bastard for so long. Santiago Segura doesn't get a lot of screen time, but he does quite a bit with what he has. It would be easy to make a complete hash of the father's thoroughly misplaced nobility and zeal, but he does well in showing us the character as Javier would see him, as well as seeing what an imperfect father he is.

Still, it's on Carlos Areces to hold the movie together, which he does nicely. Javier's father, early on, says that the boy should become a sad clown because his childhood is stolen from him, but the Javier we see is instead frozen as a child, timid and unable to handle the challenges of manhood. Still, he's likable enough - Areces has a real talent for playing the sad sack, allowing a frustrated nobility to show up underneath and explode forth as something else entirely. He's almost playing a different character at the end of the film, but he's handled all the strange stuff that de la Iglesia has thrown at him well enough that this final maniacal metamorphosis works just fine.

Man, that's long-winded, especially since what I initially set out to say was that Alex de la Iglesia and company are in top form here; those of us who are already fans of his brand of slick-but-dark comedy should love it. The surprise is how well it holds up on closer inspection, its anarchy the result of careful planning and execution as well as instinct.

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originally posted: 09/28/11 09:12:20
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  DVD: 18-Oct-2011


  DVD: 18-Oct-2011

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