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In THE LAST CIRCUS’ opening scenes, set in 1937 amidst the Spanish Civil War, a general of the Second Spanish Republic about to come face-to-face with Franco's conservative army denies a newly recruited soldier—who happens to be a clown—the ability to change outfits before battle. Decorated in a dress, requisite red nose, makeup and beard, he is told, "A clown with a machete, you'll scare the shit out of them." And so sees the amazing Alex de la Iglesia warn his audience. Rather than face us with an historical drama, he will scare and fascinate us with the ugly realities of a divided county via the melodramatic highs of a Universal Monsters film and two disfigured clowns with machetes, machine guns and bloody trumpets battling over a breathtaking acrobat and driving them all to madness and ruin in the process.
The meat of THE LAST CIRCUS takes place in 1973, two years before the end of the oppressive Franco regime and sees the son of the aforementioned clown with a machete, Javier, taking up the family mantle. As a result of his strife-ridden childhood however, he takes his father’s advice and assumes the role of a sad clown. The melancholy deepens when he finds himself falling for Natalia (Carolina Bang), the acrobat that belongs to his boss, the star and “happy” clown Sergio (Antonio de la Torre), who outside of makeup has a violent, vindictive and intolerant personality that results in many a bruises on his lady fair. Once Javier savagely takes a stand, the film builds to great heights as both become disfigured, deeply flawed and monstrous, endlessly fighting over that which they love and abuse the most.
As has been evident in much of his past work, Iglesia remains a knockout director with an amazing pedigree of talent alongside. He and cinematographer Kiko de la Rica (who previously worked on the the director’s LA COMUNIDAD) capture the ugly, often sinisterly funny and messy turns of THE LAST CIRCUS in all sorts of visually striking and beautiful manner. While small bits of dodgy CGI sprout up, the Goya-winning makeup FX more than make up for such minor infractions. Everything, from the abundance of blood to the design of the film’s lead monstrosities, invokes visceral reaction time and time again and with much aid from the acting underneath.
THE LAST CIRCUS’ three leads are a constant force, most notably Carlos Areces as Javier as we watch him masterfully transform from timid, silent dissenter to something just as evil and mad (yet sympathetic) as Sergio’s more clearly defined villain. Even with an admittedly basic knowledge of Franco’s regime and Spain’s divide, it feels clear the circus and moreover Javier, Natalia and Sergio are a microcosm with the two men playing opposing political parties and Natalia embodying Spain, an ideologically and emotionally conflicted and torn beauty. Bang is a wonder in the role. Her intense beauty and giant eyes are entirely enchanting, even as you watch her at first play, but soon become tossed between, both sides. Additionally, once her eyes and face are heartbreakingly streaked with mascara, fear and dismay, you’ll remember why the term scream queen was invented in the first place, as for once the explosion of sound feels earned and harkens far back in cinema history.
The parallel between CIRCUS and the Universal legacy is easy to draw, as Iglesia’s opening credits inter-cut the famous imagery and visages of Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, The Mummy and more of cinema’s classic villains (Fu Manchu and even a still from CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST are included as well) with those of Spain’s political leaders, generals and wartime photos throughout history. As the film treads on, the incredible production design and returning themes of lairs and being cast out, misunderstood and of course the building up of Javier’s sad clown into something scary, infamous but yet again, sympathetic only continue to serve the callbacks.
It’s entirely successful, too. THE LAST CIRCUS is on its own an engrossing horror story, but its true triumph is working through the very real angst and concern within the horror. It feels like a film that genre was created for. In a stunning, fantastical, over-the-top exploration of extreme frustration in political unrest, Iglesia has created something intelligent, wholly captivating, bizarre and frightening. It's one of the best films you'll see this year.
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