Pras on World Films: THE LAST CIRCUS (“Balada Triste de Trompeta”)

THE LAST CIRCUS (“Balada Triste de Trompeta“)  is a peculiar  comedy/drama/war film written and directed by Álex de la Iglesia that stars  Carlos Areces, Antonio de la Torre, and Carolina Bang. The film follows a  second-generation clown, Javier, who has seen just about enough tragedy and  suffering in his life. The  film introduces us to the Spanish Civil War and the recruitment of an unwilling clown into the fight against General Francisco Franco’s rebel forces. Children are watching a makeshift circus before it is crashed by militia looking to recruit anyone able bodied to fight with them.

It is 1937, Spain is in the midst of the brutal Spanish Civil War. Thousands of citizens were killed as Franco’s men moved in to purge occupied  territories and consolidate his future regime. The resistance was low on  fighters and recruited by the militia from wherever extra soldiers could be  found—even if that eventually included recruiting clown actors from a circus.  A “Happy” circus clown is interrupted mid-performance and forcibly recruited by a militia. Still in his costume, he is handed a machete and led into battle against National soldiers, where he single handedly massacres an entire platoon. However, he is taken prisoner as the higher ranks pull into town. Here we enter the tale of how this will affect his son.

This absurd and disturbing scenario raises the curtain on a twisted tale of love, revenge, and psychopathic clowns that could only spring from the mind of filmmaker Álex de la Iglesia.

It is now 1973, and the clown’s doughy, depressed son, Javier (Carlos Areces) is seeking work at a local circus. Taking his father’s advice – that he has had too much sadness in his life as a young child to ever be able to pull off the Happy Clown routine – Javier winds up working with the moth-eaten traveling show as the Sad Clown. There he meets a curious lot of characters, including Natalia  (Carolina Bang), the show’s beautiful, masochistic, lissome trapeze artist & gorgeous aerial silks acrobat whom he falls deeply  in love with.  The circus, run by Happy Clown Sergio, is full of colorful characters.  Natalia, unfortunately for Javier, is the wife of Sergio (Antonio de la Torre), a  tyrannical, violent, and mean-spirited “happy clown” who is the lead clown and Javier’s boss.  She is equally drawn to Javier’s decency as to the sexual brutality of her husband, Sergio (Antonio de la Torre).

Sergio takes every opportunity to humiliate Javier as they are paired circus  performers. The Sad Clown takes the hit of all of Happy Clown’s jokes. This means that Happy Clown holds the power over Sad Clown, no matter the routine. The role is somewhat demeaning, as the people who come to the circus, especially the children, come for Happy Clown. He is the one that makes them laugh. Around this ferociously plotted love triangle, the writer and director, Álex de la Iglesia, paints images of such inspired surreality that they more than compensate for the film’s nuttiness. While others smile, nod and agree with Sergio for the sake of him keeping his cool, newcomer Javier does not hesitate to question a rude joke he tells at dinner. Sergio’s rage immediately shows, prompting Natalia to defend Javier only to be backhanded by her husband. This sets the stage for an ultimate showdown of Sad Clown vs. Happy Clown as Javier tries to save Natalia from abusive Sergio. Her affection towards Javier causes much disarray, as she still is somewhat faithful to her husband.

With two men, with their own personal demons, fighting over her, chaos ensues with a spectacle of an ending. Sergio and Javier meet for a final, operatic duel far above The Valley of the Fallen, we see two unhinged monsters who are more alike than they realize. Perhaps Natalia had only one choice all along.   (Read more about  “The Valley of the Fallen” below)   

Brilliant, bizarre, dazzling and utterly demented, “THE LAST CIRCUS” views Franco-era Spain through the crazed eyes of two clowns doing battle for the love of one magnificent woman. The opening-credits montage eliminates any guess as to what de la Iglesia’s aim with this film may be (images of the Franco dictatorship’s atrocities are intercut with pop-cultural totems, most prominently images of the Universal monster movies).

The film has some of the surprisingly familiar appeal of the work of  Guillmero del Toro—melancholic darkness, beautifully filmed and choreographed,  like a sad Greek tragedy. The film also has a sick-comedic twist and one can  only admire the director’s attention to detail and boldness—Iglesia took risks,  and was successful. The Last Circus takes the mostly truthful joke that all people hate clowns and turns it on its head into a bizarre and amazing parable of human need. The distinctive visuals, an often flamboyant mixture of grays and vibrant reds and oranges, are rendered with the eye-popping clarity that was clearly intended. The sound mix, which can be tricky in an action-packed film (voices are sometimes muffled by the showier effects), is detailed and well mixed. The actors’ voices are entirely audible, and the ostentatious set pieces are exhilaratingly immersive. A surreal viewing experience, The Last Circus is an attractive,  sexy, and violent romance. The metaphor may be unsubtle, but the jaw-dropping brio of its execution takes the breath away: resisting its lunatic spell would probably require full-body sedation.      

THE LAST CIRCUS      Written and directed by Álex de la Iglesia; edited by Kiko de la Rica; music by Roque Baños; production design by Eduardo Hidalgo; costumes by Nieves Sanchez and Paco Delgado; produced by Gerardo Herrero and Mariela Besuievsky; released by Magnet Releasing. In Spanish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes. The Last Circus” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Deformed psyches and mutilated mugs.       

WITH: Antonio de la Torre (Sergio), Carlos Areces (Javier), Carolina Bang (Natalia), Santiago Segura (Father Stupid Clown), Fran Perea (National Soldier) and Sancho Garcia (Colonel Salcedo).   

More About  THE VALLEY OF THE FALLEN   

Spain Examines Future of Fascist Monument, and Franco’s Remains | The  International Herald Tribune | by RAPHAEL MINDER | MADRID | June 21, 2011 — Next month will be 75 years since the start of the Spanish Civil War, the bloody three-year-long conflict that claimed the lives of 450,000 people.  Yet the Spanish government has not scheduled an official commemoration of the war, which began with a military uprising on July 17, 1936. Nonetheless, the war and its victor, Francisco Franco, still generate plenty of heated debate in Spain.

Valle de los Caí­dos, or Valley of the Fallen, a large church that was carved into the mountains in the outskirts of Madrid, is Spain's most conspicuous reminder of Franco's dictatorship.

One of the unexpected and most recent controversies was set off in May by the release of a national biographical dictionary that praised Franco’s leadership in the war and described his subsequent regime as “authoritarian, but not totalitarian.”

The debate over Franco’s legacy also has been stirred by the Socialist government’s decision to set up a commission to review the future of the Valley of the Fallen, the massive underground basilica built to honor those who died for the Fascist victory. As part of its review, the commission also is supposed to recommend whether Franco’s remains should be moved from the basilica to a far less controversial cemetery adjoining his former residence of El Pardo, on the outskirts of Madrid. “My feeling is that Spaniards are perhaps less comfortable with the legacy of the civil war today than 20 or 30 years ago,” said José Álvarez Junco, a history professor at Complutense University in Madrid. “Since about 2000, there is a new generation from the left who have given much greater impulse to the whole debate, because they never knew Franco and really want to understand what happened to their grandfathers.”

Successive governments have adhered to a tacit agreement, struck in the aftermath of Franco’s death in 1975, not to use this dark chapter in the country’s history for political purposes. Some historians say that while such an agreement eased Spain’s return to democracy, it may have since forced it to steer clear of measures that could have helped heal old wounds. For instance, Nigel Townson, a British historian who lives in Madrid, suggested that it would have made sense instead to build a new monument to the fallen, to commemorate all of the estimated 450,000 victims of the war. The fact that such a project had not even been considered, Dr. Townson said, showed that “there simply has not been closure and there is still a lot of unease about what happened.”

In the meantime, the war continues to generate myriad publications, with new revelations regularly making the national headlines. On Sunday, El Mundo, a center-right newspaper, ran a front-page article about an investigation that had confirmed the identities of the men who formed the firing squad that killed the poet Federico García Lorca, one of the war’s most famous victims.

The national biographical dictionary, meanwhile, was the fruit of 12 years of work and €6.4 million, or $9.2 million, of public financing. It was meant to showcase Spain’s royal academy of history and provide a work of reference for libraries across the country.

Although some other entries in the dictionary also raised eyebrows, that of Franco generated such fierce criticism that the academy had to agree within weeks to replace the initial contribution, which was made by Luis Suárez, a renowned Franco apologist. But many historians have continued to call for a sweeping overhaul of the academy, including the removal of its aging leadership and the introduction of a proper peer review system. Asked to comment on Mr. Suárez’s description of Franco, Gonzalo Anes, the director of the academy, said that he had not had time to read it. Such a response showed “a stunning lack of understanding of the basic principles of scholarly production, including peer review, academic freedom, and the responsibilities of an editor,” said Sebastiaan Faber, professor of Hispanic studies at Oberlin College in Ohio. “It is hard to believe that Anes, as he claims, has never actually read the entry on Franco.”

The Valley of the Fallen, meanwhile, is probably the largest mass grave in Europe, home to the remains of nearly 34,000 people. Most of them fought for Franco, but the monument is also believed to contain the remains of hundreds of dead Republicans, some of which where allegedly gathered from mass graves across the country in order to swell the number in the fascist monument.

Eleven families of Republican prisoners are demanding that the bodies of their loved ones be returned to them for proper burial. On May 30, Ramón Jáuregui, the minister charged with overseeing the issue of the Valley of the Fallen, explained that the task of the 12-member commission would be to determine how to transform “a monument to National Catholicism” into “a place of reconciled memory where we can all feel comfortable as Spaniards.”

Among its other sensitive tasks, the commission will try to establish whether to allow exhumations from the mass grave, as has already been demanded by some victims’ families. The government of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has said that it would implement the commission’s recommendations. Its report is expected before the end of the year, but activists on both sides have already issued their own warnings.

A group called the Association for the Defense of the Valley of the Fallen said it would take legal action if the remains of Franco were not “left in peace.” Franco’s daughter, Carmen, also waded into the debate, on June 14, by saying that her family opposed moving the remains, even if Franco were to be reburied alongside his wife in the El Pardo cemetery.

On the other hand, the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory asserts that it would “a humiliation” if Franco’s victims had to continue to finance, via taxpayers’ money, the upkeep of his Fascist shrine. In recent years, this association has also been leading efforts to exhume and identify bodies in mass graves across Spain.

“The Valley of the Fallen is a very hard symbol to deal with because it is exactly the opposite of a monument of reconciliation,” said Mercedes Cabrera Calvo-Sotelo, a Socialist lawmaker and former education minister of Spain.

“It would have been a lot easier for Spaniards to digest the past if the dictatorship had come first and had then been followed by a war, as happened in many other countries,” she added, “but wishful thinking cannot change history.”  

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