Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ballad of the Sad Trumpet: The Last Circus

Two things remain constant in life: clowns are creepy and General Francisco Franco is still dead. If you have anything nice to say about the latter, keep it to yourself if you happen to be in Spain, lest you fall afoul of the current government’s Memoria Histórica Law. Completely legal and wildly strange, Álex de la Iglesia’s ideologically charged The Last Circus (a.k.a. A Sad Trumpet Ballad, trailer here) opens this Friday in New York.

Javier always wanted to be a “happy clown” like his father, but life has made him a “sad clown” instead. During the civil war, the Loyalists forcibly impressed his father into their ranks in the midst of a children’s matinee, in full make-up, for what they knew would be a hopeless last stand. Captured, his father’s fate is decided by the sinister Col. Salcedo, whom Javier will encounter again decades later.

Essentially, Javier is a divided personality. Part of him seethes for vengeance, while the other half yearns to hear the cheers of the circus. Unfortunately, destiny made him a sad clown, the butt of other clowns’ jokes, rather than the merry jester. When he signs onto Sergio’s rag-tag company, he will only get sadder. It is not just the routines that are sadistic. The happy clown also terrorizes his company outside the ring, particularly his lover Natalia, the trapeze artist. Javier is also quite taken with her, which means trouble.

As the already traumatized Sergio becomes increasingly agitated, the historical mixes with the fictional, producing one dark but potent cocktail. Forget subtlety. That has no place in a film that climaxes at Spain’s controversial Valley of the Fallen monument, like a sinister, slightly sacrilegious North by Northwest. Viewers should understand full well there is some very disturbing imagery in Circus, but it serves a specific purpose and, more often than not, it is quite inventively conceived and rendered.

As the whipping boy of Sergio, Franco’s militarists, and Iglesias, Carlos Areces is a pretty compelling sad clown. While his crack-up is outrageously over-the-top, he keeps viewers invested in the madness, suggesting there really was a “there” in there at one point. Conversely, there is not a lot of nuance to Antonio de la Torre’s Sergio, but gee whiz, he is scary.

Granted, it defies easy categorization, but Circus is definitely a well-crafted film. Down the stretch, cinematographer Kiko de la Riko and production designer Eduardo Hidalgo’s team make The Dark Knight look like The Smurfs. Yet, perhaps the film’s shrewdest strategy is the use of Spanish balladeer Raphael’s “Balada de la Trompeta” as a recurring motif, perfectly setting the eerily mournful mood. It is a tune musicians ought to consider covering, because it really insinuates itself into your head.

Do not bring the kids to this Circus. It is a decidedly macabre and subversive affair with an idiosyncratic style all its own. However, adventurous viewers will be impressed by Iglesias’s command of all the lunacy exploding on-screen. It is so crazy, even the sledgehammer politics are lost in the shuffle, but that is a good thing. Recommended for those who like a strong dose of weird in their cinema (who will dig it like a gold rush), Circus opens tomorrow (8/19) in New York at the Cinema Village.