Last Circus, The: Alex de la Iglesia’ Tale of Spanish Clowns, Spanning Deacdes

Set against shifting and tumultuous political contexts, Alex de la Iglesia’s The Last Circus is a significant—and entertaining—feature, which illuminates its original subject by blending together different kinds of narrative strands and  visual styles, resulting in an effective work.

This absurd, shocking, irreverent work was a highlight of the 2010 Toronto Film Fest, where it received its premiere as an official selection.

The entrepreneurial Magnolia is now releasing the film theatrically. By the way, the feature’s Spanish title, “Balada Triste,” which translates into “Sad Ballad,” is more accurate, capturing more vividly the film’s bizarre spirit and dark tone.

The tale begins in 1937, when Spain is in the midst of the brutal and divisive Civil War. A “Happy” circus clown is interrupted in mid-performance and is forcibly recruited by a militia. Still in his costume, he is handed a machete and led into battle against National soldiers, where he single handedly massacres a platoon.

The rest of this absurd, disturbing, surreal movie centers on a twisted tale of love, revenge, and psychopathic and schizoid clowns.

The film’s second half cuts to decades later, circa 1973 and the end of the Franco regime.  Javier, the son of the clown, dreams of following in his father’s footsteps, but he has seen too much tragedy in his life. He feels that he’s simply not funny enough, that perhaps he is only suitable for playing the role of the Sad Clown.

Javier then finds work in a circus where he befriends an outlandish cast of characters.  There, assuming the part of the Sad Clown, on and off stage, he is the victim of abuse of the brutish Happy Clown Sergio, who humiliates Javier—all in the name of entertainment.

There are some brighter moments in his life, however, as when Javier meets Natalia, a gorgeously seductive acrobat, who happens to be Sergio’s abused wife.  Deeply in love, Javier tries to rescue her from her cruel and violent husband, which, of course, just unleashes even more Sergio’s already nasty jealousy. As a result, the poor Natalia is torn between her emotional affection for Javier and her lust for Sergio.

With neither man willing to withdraw from what has becomes a cruel competition, this twisted love triangle devolves into a ferocious battle between Sad Clown and Happy Clown, escalating to unpredictable results.