Alex de la Iglesia seems to have taken the Peter Gabriel line “I want to be your sledgehammer” to heart, since little else can explain the unpleasant excess of “The Last Circus.” Loud, tedious and unattractive in every sense, this barrage of blood set during the Franco regime combines the helmer’s customary cartoonishness with horror and ups it a thousand notches. Presumably his two vengeful clowns are meant to be an in-your-face comment on Spain’s fascist past, but the nonstop splatter has all the insight of an ultraviolent videogame. Though pic is unworthy of the distinction, cult status is assured.
Previously Iglesia used his distinctive vision — part comicbook, part Quentin Tarantino — to amusing effect, his over-the-top stylizations pitched to a crowd often eager for participatory verbal fun in the aisles. By contrast, the excesses of “Circus” are merely nihilistic screams meant to exorcise some of Iglesia’s self-described rage. There’s no laughter here, but neither is the helmer’s howl coherent, with its blaring CGI effects and buckets of lurid gore. Controversy will be stirred in Spain, resulting in plenty of curious ticketbuyers, though beyond midnight screenings, it’s hard to imagine the pic succeeding offshore unless blogosphere buzz turns viral.
Everything kicks off with a bang when Republican Army soldiers invade a circus and conscript the performers to fight Franco’s fascist guard. The partisans — as bloodthirsty as Franco’s men — are decimated, and the Stupid Clown (Santiago Segura) is thrown in prison. Six years later, in 1943, the Clown tells his visiting son Javier (Jorge Clemente) that vengeance is the only way to thwart fate.
Cut to 1973, and Javier (Carlos Areces) joins a circus as the Sad Clown, partnering with foul-tempered Sergio (Antonio de la Torre), who says, “If I weren’t a clown, I’d be a murderer.” Pudgy, shy Javier takes an instant shine to Sergio’s g.f., Natalia (Carolina Bang), unable to comprehend the deep-seated masochism that keeps the beautiful trapeze artist in a relationship with the astonishingly brutal man. More brutal violence ensues.
It doesn’t take a PhD to figure out that Natalia represents Spain, masochistically allowing herself to be brutalized by the fascists (Sergio) while gentle cowards (Javier) stand by slowly waiting for their revenge. No doubt the Spanish press will be full of analysis and accusations, but neither the film nor the metaphor merits the controversy.
Even the explosive anarchy of the credit sequence, with flashed photos offering a dissociative cultural history of the 20th century, from Lon Chaney and Ming the Merciless to Raquel Welch and Ronald Reagan, reps a mere pileup of raging thoughts disguised as something meaningful.
In general, perfs are overwrought and about as subtle as Ms. Bang’s push-up bra. Lenser Kiko de la Rica (who also collaborated with Iglesia on “Common Wealth” and “The Oxford Murders”) gives his camera a workout, swooping about amid a palette that begins with muted tonalities and becomes increasingly lurid. CGI effects are uneven — a re-creation of Prime Minister Luis Carrero-Blanco’s assassination is weak, while the finale recycles the usual death-defying shots meant to induce vertigo; Roque Banos’ loud and constant orchestrations overwhelm dialogue. Pic’s Spanish-lingo title comes from the song “Ballad of the Sad Trumpet,” heard in a vintage film clip performed by crooner Raphael.