The Last Circus

The Last Circus

***

Reviewed by: David Graham

The cult director of 90s trash epics Accion Mutante, Day Of The Beast and Perdita Durango beats a desperate retreat from his recent brush with respectability via The Oxford Murders. Alex de la Iglesia's latest opus is as nuttily unpredictable as the films that made his name, veering from surreal action to nicely played romance and on to a farcically apocalyptic second half that will probably alienate as many as it will titillate.

Taking obvious visual cues from directors such as Terry Gilliam and Guillermo del Toro, and striving for the manic energy and splatter theatrics of early Peter Jackson, de la Iglesia sadly undermines much of the good work he does in setting up this bizarre world by remaining indecisive about how we should feel about his characters right up to the final frame.

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Opening with the acts from a kids' circus being enlisted to fight in the Spanish Civil War, the film follows the overweight, anti-social Javier - the latest in a long family line of clowns - as he joins a particularly dysfunctional troupe of performers. There he immediately falls under the spell of the bewitching Natalia, and into hot water with her brutally heavy-handed husband Sergio. As the two clowns' enmity grows more intense, insanity and sado-masochism take hold, leading to a battle for Natalia's heart that becomes a national media spectacle.

Riffing on the cinematic canon of Alejandro Jodorowsky - especially the magnificent Santa Sangre - is all well and good, but de la Iglesia doesn't seem to understand how to write psychologically convincing characters, something even El Topo managed despite its wild plot twists.

This is a shame as the trio of leads give distinguished turns in the first half, Carlos Aceces bringing some poignancy to Javier's pining while Antonio de la Torre infuses Sergio with explosive menace and Carolina Bang is absolutely intoxicating in a classic femme fatale role. While they remain committed to the material throughout, their energetic efforts are squandered in a squeamish barrage of over-the-top set-pieces that lack any coherent narrative logic.

It's hard to see how this could have won awards - aside from the undeniable visual splendor, The Last Circus is just too indulgent and excessive to satisfy or be taken seriously as either art or mainstream cinema. What starts off as inventive and amusing - look out for some crowd-pleasing deployment of clown tears - becomes irritating and even boring by the time the lead characters have lost their minds and most of their faces.

The tone is just too inconsistent - it's rarely funny, exciting or horrific enough to really work as comedy, action or horror, and instead flits between the three in frustrating fashion. The increased use of some painfully unconvincing CGI just compounds the problem - where early scenes in the circus have an earthy quality due to impressive stunt-work and skillful direction, the climactic chases end up resembling a poor man's superhero set-piece.

The Last Circus is worth a watch for the unbridled imagination on display but ultimately it falls apart as much as its main protagonist. It's impossible to care who ends up with the girl when she doesn't even seem to know who she wants - then again, it isn't much of a choice. The political subtext is mostly played for easy laughs, and otherwise doesn't really add much to the story, while de la Iglesia's technical prowess only highlights the weaknesses in his script even more.

If the Spanish director can better balance his admirable ambition with genuine substance in future, he could finally ascend to join the ranks of international cinematic icons such as del Toro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. For now he's made another idiosyncratic mess, that will no doubt please fans of his earlier output but will probably infuriate everyone else.

Reviewed on: 04 Jul 2011
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Two clowns become embroiled in a tug of war for the heart of an acrobat.
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Director: Álex de la Iglesia

Writer: Álex de la Iglesia

Starring: Carlos Areces, Antonio de la Torre, Carolina Bang

Year: 2010

Runtime: 107 minutes

Country: Spain, France


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