Saturday, 10 September 2016

The Last Circus (5 Stars)

This is a difficult review for me. I watched the film this morning and I'm in a daze. I could have turned off the sound, and the images alone would have overwhelmed me. I'm glad I haven't yet published my list of my favourite 50 films of all time, because this is a new addition.

I expected the film to be good before I sat down to watch it. After all, Alex de la Iglesia is a good director. For the first 45 minutes it was a love triangle, two circus clowns who love the same trapeze artist. It was enjoyable, relaxing and predictable. I don't mean that as a criticism. Just because I knew where the story was heading doesn't mean that I didn't enjoy the way it was getting there. But I underestimated Alex de la Iglesia. Suddenly the story was ramped up a notch, and the film switched from one scene of madness to another in quick succession. If I listed the plots and sub-plots one by one you would say that it's too much for one film, and yet it was perfect. It all fitted together. The love triangle continued, but it disappeared in the background.

The film is wrapped around historical events which I presume are well known to Spanish viewers. In 1937 a circus performance was interrupted by government troops who demanded that all men in the tent, performers and audience alike, immediately enlist to fight against General Franco and his Fascists. Anyone who refused would be executed as a traitor. Tonto the clown was among the unwilling fighters. Due to a lack of guns, many of the men were only given knives, axes and machetes. In the first battle the government troops are slaughtered, including all of Tonto's friends. In a rage he attacks the Fascists and slaughters dozens of men with a machete before he's finally captured. After General Franco comes to power Tonto and other prisoners are used as slave labourers to build the giant cross at the Valle de los Caidos, next to a Benedictine monastery, on top of a mass grave of soldiers and civilians killed by the Fascists. Tonto's young son Javier attempts to free his father. The attempt fails and Tonto is killed, but the slave master, Colonel Salcedo, loses an eye and swears revenge on Javier.

In 1973 Javier is a clown, like his father and his grandfather before him. He joins a new circus as the sad clown. His partner in the circus is Sergio, the happy clown. Sergio has a girlfriend, Natalia, that he treats badly. He beats and abuses her. Javier immediately falls in love with Natalia and wants to save her from Sergio, but she loves him because he's so good at sex. Nevertheless, Natalia flirts with Javier, making Sergio even more jealous. I expected a final showdown between the two men at the end of the film, but there's a battle after 45 minutes, less than half way through the film. Both men are badly wounded. Sergio is disfigured, and Javier flees into the woods where he lives naked as a wild animal. As if that weren't enough, Colonel Salcedo returns to finally take his revenge. Javier meets General Franco. Javier becomes a suspect in the assassination of Franco's successor, Admiral Blanco, on December 20th, 1973. The final showdown takes place at the Valle de los Caidos, in the presence of the horseback monks who act as the guards of the Benedictine monastery.

This is a film that has so much happening that I still can't take it all in. It's a work of genius.

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