Judge Gordon Sullivan is only afraid of the clowns that have guns.
The Sad Ballad of the Trumpet…
America lacks a strong clowning tradition. Aside from rodeo clowns (who exist in their own strange space), the traditional clown is more often laughed at than laughed with in America. Clowns are either scary—as numerous snarky film and television characters tell us with alarming frequency—or they're only interested in being clowns to get close to little children for dubious reasons. For many American viewers, this lack of clown experience—or the lack of taking clowns seriously as entertainers—might make The Last Circus a little difficult to approach. As its title makes clear, the film is about a circus and takes the life of a clown as its subject, treating him with a certain amount of awed dignity. If viewers are willing to dig beyond the clowning (and a heavy dose of Spanish history), they'll discover a madcap action-drama hybrid that combines stunning visual flair with a surprisingly moving story (for a film that features a gun-toting clown on the cover).
Facts of the Case
The Last Circus (Blu-ray) opens in 1937, as a small circus is conscripted to fight in Spain's national army against Franco and his fascists. One of the circus's clowns—the happy one of the pair—distinguishes himself in the fighting, and earns extra ire from Franco's men when they take power. While his father is in prison, the clown's son decides that he too will be a clown, but he will be a sad one because life is against him. We fast forward several decades into Franco's reign, and the young man—Javier (Carlos Areces, The Great Vazquez)—has grown up into a sad clown, and he joins a ragtag band in a new circus. There, he's paired with a happy clown, Sergio (Antonio de la Torre, Volver). When the sad clown falls for Javier's acrobat lover a battle between the two clowns ensues.
After a few opening moments of clowning, a military man shows up to conscript the clowns. Once they're conscripted, director Alex de la Iglesia unleashes an action scene that's equal parts Quentin Tarantino and Federico Fellini. He keeps his happy clown (and the rest of the circus troupe) in circus garb as the conscripted troops fight the fascist rebels. We watch as this clown—armed with a machete—cuts down soldier after soldier before being wounded. It's a carnivalesque version of Saving Private Ryan as directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky, a kind of fever-dream of the fight against fascism. Truth be told, this paragraph will tell you everything you need to know about whether to see The Last Circus. If the idea of Fellini and Tarantino collaborating on a remake of Saving Private Ryan sounds like a good idea to you, then chances are this is for you.
Of course it's not all slow-mo fighting and clowns wielding machetes. The film is also about the legacy of Franco's regime, forbidden love, and the vanishing art of the circus—all that, and a clown-versus-clown showdown. The Last Circus is stuffed to the brim—with violence, with color, and with plot. Yet, it never feels as schizophrenic as it sounds, effortlessly taking the viewer from 1937 to the early 1970s and the growing relationship between Javier and his acrobatic love interest.
All of the various plot points—from the circus to Franco's soldiers—allows de la Iglesia to indulge in his frankly beautiful visual style. The whole film appears to be decaying before our very eyes, with crumbling structures and desaturated colors, while the compositions are framed like paintings. Even if the idea of warring clowns sounds terrible, de la Iglesia has shot his mad tale beautifully.
That beauty is translated perfectly to this Blu-ray release. The 2.35:1 AVC-encoded transfer is stunning. The Last Circus was shot digitally, so this is a digital-to-digital port, and I can't imagine it looking better. Detail is strong throughout, from the patterns in the clown suits to the cracks in their white makeup, while color is perfectly saturated (though not particularly realistic). Black levels remain consistent and deep, and no artifacting shows up to mar the image. The tiniest bit of noise crops up in darker scenes, but that's probably not the fault of this transfer. The audio lives up to the quality of the video with this release. The DTS-HD Spanish language surround track (an English dub with the same specs is available) sounds remarkable. The explosions and action scenes have heft, while the film also makes good use of the soundscape, with good surround activity and left-to-right panning. Dialogue is crisp and clear, primarily out of the center channel.
The extras are not quite as stunning, but give some solid info on how the film works technically. We get a 15-minute making of, and a pair of behind-the-scenes featurettes, followed by some info on the film's (copious) visual effects. Finally, the disc includes the U.S. trailer, its international counterpart, and an international teaser.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I don't think it's a mark against the film the film to say it's very Spanish. I came to the film knowing a bit about Franco and clowning, but I found the film initially a bit confusing. Those who have no idea about the Spanish Civil War and the history of European clowning might want to brush up a bit before going into this film. The equivalent for American audiences would be a film about Southern minstrel shows in the late 1800s; they're almost exclusively an American phenomena and closely tied to our Civil War. So, while I think that it's great that de la Iglesia is dealing (very well) with particularly Spanish themes, it might leave some Anglo viewers in the dark.
The Last Circus is a bizarre little fable about love, clowns, and fascism. It's got absurdity, a dark sense of humor, and plenty of visual style to spare. It's not a total success—some would certainly argue that a few judicious trims would give the film even more impact—but it's destined to find a cult audience on home video. This Blu-ray is an excellent way to enjoy the film, with a solid technical presentation and some informative extras. Worth a rent for fans of the weird.
Happy or sad, The Last Circus is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
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