Renegade Spanish director Álex de la Iglesia parts ways with his regular writing partner, Jorge Guerricaechevarría, to craft The Last Circus -- a hyper-violent, highly stylized political allegory punctuated by unexpected plot twists and grotesque visuals. But while de la Iglesia's ninth feature (tenth if you count The Baby's Room, his excellent contribution to the "6 Films to Keep You Awake" television series) reveals him as every bit the visionary he was back when he shocked moviegoers with Acción Mutante in 1992, The Last Circus finds the director somewhat lost without his trusted collaborator, and relying too heavily on the familiar themes and imagery of his previous films for this to feel like a real step forward. That said, anyone who has yet to experience the director's unique style of filmmaking is in for a hell of a shock with this movie, and hopefully they won't be too turned off by the unapologetic excess to delve into de la Iglesia's richly rewarding body of work.
Madrid, 1937: A group of children are watching a pair of clowns perform a circus routine when the sounds of war begin to blast through the canvas tent, and a band of desperate Partisans (fighting in the Spanish Civil War) burst in looking for extra manpower. As the children and elderly flee in terror, the leader of the Partisans thrusts a machete into the hands of the Happy Clown (Santiago Segura), who uses the weapon to single-handedly massacre one of General Franco's entire regiments. Incredibly, the Happy Clown survives, though he is promptly imprisoned by the sadistic Colonel Salcedo (Sancho Gracia). The film leaps forward to 1973, when the Happy Clown's son, Javier (Carlos Areces), has just landed a job with the circus, and prepares to follow in his father's footsteps by becoming a clown. But Javier has seen too much tragedy to feign happiness under the big top, so he assumes the role of the Sad Clown opposite Happy Clown Sergio (Antonio de la Torre), a drunken beast who abuses his beautiful circus-acrobat girlfriend, Natalia (Carolina Bang), every time he tips back a bottle. Before long, Javier has fallen under Natalia's charms, setting him on a violent collision course with his circus counterpart. And when these two clowns clash, no one in Madrid will be safe from the fallout.
Over the course of his 20 or so odd years behind the camera, de la Iglesia has developed an unmistakable visual style that has earned him a loyal cult following. Yet, despite winning a Best Director Goya (the Spanish equivalent of an Oscar) in 1995 for his brilliant comic horror film The Day of the Beast and receiving numerous nominations ever since, the director remains one of cinema's best-kept secrets.
However, although The Last Circus finds de la Iglesia as bold and uncompromising as ever both as a screenwriter and a director, his allegorical tale of a country caught between two warring sets of ideals lacks the political punch to make it much more than a maniacal -- and occasionally intense -- freak show. There are definite moments of historical poignancy (such as the scene in which Javier sinks his teeth into General Franco's outstretched hand, or when he witnesses the explosive political assassination of the dictator's noted confidant Luis Carrero Blanco), but without Guerricaechevarría by his side, de la Iglesia fails to make these moments feel anything more than incidental as the battle over Natalia goes nuclear.
The three things that The Last Circus does have going for it, though, are a strong cast, one genuinely unexpected plot twist, and an intense visual dynamic that keeps our eyes locked on the screen even as we're being assaulted by brutally violent imagery. Throughout de la Iglesia's career, violence has been an integral component of his style and storytelling. The violence in The Last Circus ranges from slapstick (an ongoing gag concerning a motorcycle stunt rider) to horrifying (Javier intentionally disfiguring himself in a fit of rage). And while the cast -- specifically Areces, de la Torre, and Bang -- do a masterful job of helping de la Iglesia maintain the unique and unsettling tone, The Last Circus still comes across as little more than a composite of ideas from the director's previous films (most notably 1999's Dying of Laughter). Likewise, by the time de la Iglesia's trademark vertigo-inducing climax gets under way, we're forced to wonder at what point a filmmaker's overreliance on hallmarks becomes more of a crutch than a bolster.
With La Comunidad (2000) and El Crimen Perfecto (2004), de la Iglesia proved that a filmmaker's technical and storytelling skills can evolve by leaps and bounds even if the writer/director's own sensibilities are still charmingly immature. With his two most recent films, The Oxford Murders and The Last Circus, however, that period of exciting growth appears to have hit a plateau. Even so, de la Iglesia's cracking senses of pacing and style are still quite intact, indicating that should the director manage to once again team up with a writer on par with Guerricaechevarría, the potential for greatness is still very much there.