Based on the trailer and poster art, de la Iglesia's The Last Circus [Balada Triste de Trompeta] was either going to be a great cinematic celebration or a complete and utter failure. The marketing of the film left no doubt that we were in for a bold and daring piece of film, but I wasn't completely certain whether de la Iglesia was really up to the job. After watching the film though, it's safe to say it surpassed all my initial expectations.
I like Spanish (genre) cinema, but overall I have the feeling Spanish films like to play it safe, aiming for craftsmanship rather than creativity and identity. From slow-burning horror films like No Do and The Orphanage to found footage films like [rec], [rec] 2 and Atrocious, these are all great example of solid film making but lacking the element of surprise and wonder. If anything, The Last Circus is here to shatter this very presumption, ready to serve you a different kind of Spanish cinema.
From the very first minutes it is obvious this is not just another genre flick playing by any strict rules or sticking to simple genre conventions. The film can't even stick to one single genre for longer than five minutes in a row, continuously shifting between action, horror, drama and romance. Below all this manic shape-shifting there is a solid layer of dark humor tying everything together and keeping the film from falling apart, though not everyone might pick it all that quickly as some jokes are quite morbid indeed.
The story of this film goes all over the place, but at its core lies a simple tale of a young boy who sees his father imprisoned and exploited and never gets over his traumatic past. When the boy grows up he joins a circus as a sad clown, trying to follow in his father's footsteps. But a failed relationship finally pushes him over the edge, throwing him in a big emotional turmoil that takes a firm grip on him and the people around him. While this sounds very dramatic and deep the reality is an evil looking clown waving around automatic guns, so no worries.
Visually de la Iglesia has everything under control. The film has a raw and dark visual edge, often contrasted with strong and sharp lighting. Every shot or scene is a meticulously visualized and this for the entire running time of the film. From costumes to setting to camera work and lighting, Balada Triste just oozes style and, apart from one or two mediocre CG shots, looks absolute impeccable. Seeing a film like this with such lush production values is quite rare, but it's even rarer to see such an amount of money used this well.
The soundtrack is a different story. Like many other Spanish films the soundtrack can be a little overwhelming. The music seems ever-present and judging by the choice of tunes the film is supposed to be a succession of dramatic climaxes, one even bigger and bolder than the other. It's all a bit much, though the music itself isn't all that bad really. While definitely fitting is some scenes, it would've been better if de la Iglesia had incorporated some quieter moments, less driven by music and relying more on the superb visuals.
Luckily the acting is great, giving the film some extra depth and shine. Carlos Areces is superb in the lead, switching effortlessly between tormented clown and crazy madmen in between scenes. The rest of the cast is equally engaged, resulting in a remarkable set of vile, weird and dark characters. And while the film's characters retain their caricatural nature there is also something deeper that drives them, creating an interesting and rare duality, something quite unique to this specific film.
It's quite difficult to define a target audience for The Last Circus as there is something for everyone, but also many things that might put people off. People coming for the violence and action might not care for the underlying drama and romance, people coming for the arthouse vibe might find the film a bit too shallow and direct at times. Whatever group you might put yourself in though, The Last Circus is worth checking out if only to experience it for yourself and to make up your own mind about this film.
Put Del Toro, Rodriguez and Jeunet in a blender, add some clown sprinkles and shake really well. Finish with a good handful of de la Iglesia magic, and you have a film that might not appeal to everyone but sure knows how to make an impression no matter how much you effectively enjoy watching it. The Last Circus is impossible to compare to anything I watched before, and for that reason alone it deserves all the attention it can get.
It's hard to recommend this film in the sense that I don't know what the exact reactions of people may be. But this is a film that needs to be watched, if only so you can make up your own mind about de la Iglesia's clown epic. It's a technical marvel, an unearthly combination of pulp and arthouse that is equally moving as it is entertaining, without ever becoming cheap or misplaced. A regular gem that deserves an appreciative audience. I'm sad to have missed this in cinemas, luckily there's a solid Spanish DVD/Blu-Ray release to fill that void. Absolutely recommended.