The antic lunacy begins in 1937, as a peaceful, "happy" clown (Villen) is dragooned at gunpoint and in the midst of his schtick into the ragtag "rebel" ranks against Franco's fascist soldiers. The irony – clowns are, by definition, a type of rebel – is just the first of many that litter this strange and wonderful film like bloody buffoons on a blackened battlefield. The soldiers insist he stay dressed in drag: "Can I change my clothes?" he asks. "No," comes the reply. "A clown with a machete? You'll scare the shit out of them." The happy berzerker ends up slaughtering an entire regiment before being captured and imprisoned.
Cut to 1973. Javier (Areces), the clown's son, is following in his father's vastly oversized footsteps, literally. He's anything but happy, though, wearing the painted frown of the "sad" clown while plying his craft in a bedraggled circus. He pines for sensual aerialist Natalia (Bang, indeed!), but she is bound to her vicious, brutal husband Sergio (de la Torre), the troupe's lead clown. Clearly, this is a love/hate triangle that cannot last but is destined, like Javier, for sumptuously over-the-top (and blood-splattered) melodrama. Which is exactly what de la Iglesia does best.
If there's any corollary to The Last Circus it's to be found in the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky, and in particular that Chilean director's exquisitely perverse Santa Sangre. Both films involve love, death, and circuses, but de la Iglesia's is far more nuanced, more astonishing, and more beautiful to look at, thanks to the absurdly rapturous cinematography of Kiko de la Rica. It's also more poignant, even heartbreaking at times, and an altogether more entertaining slice of pie-in-the-face farce. It's impossible to separate the political from the personal in de la Iglesia's films (not unlike Guillermo del Toro's non-Hollywood efforts), but a working knowledge of the human heart is more necessary here than a working knowledge of the horrific history of Spain under Franco.
Circuses are mad places at the best of times, rife with lunacy (or the appearance of it), danger, and spectacle. De la Iglesia wads it all up into a modern parable on the perils of love and extremism: love of extreme politics, love of extreme people, love of – or, really, fear of – the extremes one will go to to achieve a semblance of love. It's not a pretty picture, but it is a hellaciously gorgeous and original film.