Natalia (Carolina Bang) runs for her life in THE LAST CIRCUS (Photo: Magnet Releasing)

Written & Directed by Álex de la Iglesia
Produced by Gerardo Herrero & Mariela Besuievsky
Spanish with English subtitles
Released by Magnet Releasing
Spain/France. 105 min. Rated R
With Carlos Areces, Antonio de la Torre, Carolina Bang, Sancho Gracia & Juan Luis Galiardo

When I was in Spain last December, I found it funny that the title of the Ben Stiller comedy Little Fockers was rendered rather flatly in Spanish as “And Now They Are the Parents!” With writer-director Álex de la Iglesia’s new movie, Balada triste de trompeta—it’s the name of a song in the film, “Ballad of the Sad Trumpet”—we get our own awkward translation. In America, the title’s “The Last Circus.” This strikes me as more appropriate for a gentle, coming-of-age story, not one about killer clowns.

Whatever it’s called, this bizarre tale of two carnies fighting over a woman in the waning years of Franco’s Spain is, for the most part, lowbrow, neo-grindhouse fare: lots of gory deaths, outrageous costumes, scriptwriting that’s more about registering a shock than making sense, and dead baby jokes. True, some of this might just be over my head. Set mainly in 1973, the story smells of allegory. In some ways, it’s like a trashy guide to late Spanish fascism and includes a number of real-life incidents, like the assassination of Carrero Blanco, Franco’s hand-picked successor, who was blown up by Basque separatists. It even ends with a climactic tussle on top of the Valley of the Fallen, a monument created by Franco and built in part by left-wing convicts. Audiences closer to the material here—that is, Spaniards—might get more out of the movie. To me, it just felt like the history was merely a learned backdrop for the schlock.

The tale concerns Javier (Carlos Areces), a son of a clown. His father, a reluctant republican fighter, was captured by fascists and murdered while laboring beneath the Valley of the Fallen. Because of this historical and personal baggage, Javier is, naturally, a sad clown. He finds work in a traveling circus ruled by Sergio (Antonio de la Torre), a happy clown and a drunk, who terrorizes everyone and often beats up his girlfriend, Natalia (Carolina Bang), the circus’s blonde, curvy acrobat. Soon, Javier falls in love with her, but she doesn’t take him seriously. She’s one of those nightmare females that guys who run pickup-artist courses imagine all women are like: her boyfriend dominates her, and she gets off on it.

As the two men fight over Natalia, they grow increasingly violent, and the film grows increasingly bizarre. There are disfigurings, visions of the Virgin Mary, and episodes of raw meat-eating. Franco even shows up and gets his hand bitten. And again, it all passes almost Forrest Gump-like through a few key moments of Spain’s recent past. Of course, unlike Forrest Gump, our hero is not a simpleton with a heart of gold. He is a fat, pale—and for one painfully long sequence, completely naked—schlub, who is steadily losing his mind. Before long, he uses hydrogen peroxide and a hot iron to apply his own permanent clown makeup, and then goes on a rampage.

I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but Franco, in his brief appearance, comes off as the sanest character around. In one scene, Javier is captured by an evil colonel (never mind why), who treats him as a bird dog, forcing him to fetch and carry shot pheasants in his mouth. Franco sees this and doesn’t like it. “This is not Christian,” he tells the colonel. “I’ve known you a long time, and there are many things you do I don’t agree with.” That’s one of the few weird bits that this movie does well.  But in general, de la Iglesia is better at setting up situations than finishing them, and he creates more gripping images—the sort that can be used in publicity shots—than actual scenes.

For instance, there is one moment when Javier, now a killer clown dressed like the pope, bursts into a diner and for no reason threatens a small child with a machine gun. It’s a shocking and horrifying set-up, but nothing happens. The boy leaves, and Javier looks like he’s wondering why he’s in the diner and what he’s supposed to do next. So are we. I guess it’s just another case of being all dressed up like the insane clown posse, with nowhere to go.