A bizarre love triangle set against the historical backdrop of Spain from the 30s to the 70s, with fantastical elements thrown in for good measure, complete with grotesque images that firmly puts this amongst cult favourites demanding an acquired taste. It won writer-director Alex de la Iglesia a Silver Lion at the 2010 Venice Film Festival, and so I'm quite surprised it actually did make it to our shores some two years later given a subject material that is steeped in Spanish history with its allegories, without which it may just appear to be a violently dark film.
It begins in 1937 where a laughing clown is in the process of entertaining children, but for the Spanish Republican militia to rudely interrupt the circus act to conscript every able bodied man to fight off the insurgent Loyalist forces. The clown is given a machete and he proceeds to really hack off countless of adversary soldiers, before being put down, jailed and soon gets sent to work on the Valle de los Caidos. He leaves his son Javier with advice to be the sad clown because Javier had lost his childhood with the war, and we fast forward to the 70s where the now grown up Javier (Carols Areces) finally heeds his dad's advice and got a job as a sad clown, playing opposite the laughing clown Sergio (Antonio de la Torre), a sadist behind the makeup, but so popular that he's single-handedly responsible for the circus' financial viability.
Of all people, Javier has to fall in love with Sergio's wife, the acrobat Natalia (Carolina Bang), who herself is quite the cock-tease for stringing Javier along, who personifies the type of girl who just cannot pull herself away from the bad boy. Javier insists that she leaves Sergio during one of their secret outings at night, and soon the entire narrative blows apart when Sergio catches them together, and beats the living daylights out of both. Here's where everything becomes a little bizarre, with Javier seeking revenge and almost killing Sergio, if not for their fellow circus troupe members sending him for emergency surgery at the nearest vet, causing disfiguring and in essence, puts his inner, ugly personality on the outside for all and sundry. As for Javier, he hides out in a cave stark naked, feeding on animals who drop in, before being caught by a one-time enemy, humiliated, and in a dream sequence, becomes the violent, angel of death strapped with every conceivable gun, going on a rampage to get his lady love back.
While the narrative may be strangely held together by plots that don't really connect, with disparate scenes and sequence of events, it is the imagery that gets put on screen that becomes somewhat magnetic to watch, keeping one glued to how everything would turn out, especially since violence has now entered the picture. Alex de la Iglesia challenges you to keep watching even as he presents some of the vividly horrific scenes of self-mutilation as Javier literally turns into the sad clown, and a gun toting one at that, driven to madness just for the unattainable love of a woman who repeatedly continues to spurn this one time gentle giant of a man, for a drunken who can satisfy her fetish for violent sex. de la Iglesia never shied away from fusing history into his plot, with old newsreel interruptions to point out specific historical milestones that ties in with the story he wants to tell, but the best parts as the film wore on was the battle between the two clowns, with a final shot that's really quite poignant as they become truly who they are, with make pretense in an arena turning into actual, permanent emotions.
If you're up for a film that can easily be a staple in fantastic film festivals, then The Last Circus will be right up your alley. Otherwise the narrative may border a little on the unbelievably absurd, coincidental, and may not actually make much sense, and easily become B-grade exploitative fare if not for its love triangle that connects the protagonist together, and the strong statements Alex de la Iglesia has depicting the tumultuous, violent history of the country.