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The Last Circus -- Film Review

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VENICE -- The circus has been used in just about every conceivable way in films, but perhaps not since Todd Browning's 1932 "Freaks" has it gone so far over the top in horror, which here assumes the modern guise of stomach-churning violence. Spanish writer-director Alex de la Iglesia's reputation precedes him in this genre and "The Last Circus" (a.k.a. "A Sad Trumpet Ballad") won't disappoint his fans. The disappointed ones will be those whose hopes are raised in the first stunning half-hour, which is full of dramatic tension and complexity that mutate into a series of genre sensations. The film's bold energy continues right up to a frantic final chase, however, and earned it two important prizes from Quentin Tarantino's jury at Venice for best direction and best screenplay, foretelling excellent box office amid critical rumblings.

It's as though de la Iglesia was unaware of the powerful shock waves created in the opening scenes, which open a Pandora's box of potential meaning that finds no carry-through in the script. Though the story never becomes conventional, it does retreat into derivative, in its salutes to the Mount Rushmore sequence in Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" and reworking of various circus film staples.

In the middle of the Spanish Civil War, a clown show for children is brusquely interrupted by a fevered group of Republicans, who forcibly recruit the performers into the militia to fight Franco's fascists. Given no choice in the matter, the Stupid Clown (Santiago Segura, who played Shorty Dee in "The Day of the Beast") finds a gun in his hands and murderous fighters in front of him. His gentle persona switches to uncontrolled killer and, still in his ridiculous female clown suit and happy make-up, he charges Franco's soldiers with bloodlust in his eyes.

Where will the film go from this extraordinary opener, one wonders? The answer is downhill. Six years have passed, Franco is in power, the clown is in prison. He tells son Javier (Jorge Clemente), who was an innocent little boy in the previous scene, to seek revenge.

Next we jump to 1973 Madrid. Franco is still in power -- he even appears in the film very briefly -- but politics is put off the train, or at least in a locked carriage where it is inaccessible to most viewers. There may be hidden metaphors here for Spanish audiences, but the narrative chooses not to develop them. Instead it follows a straight-arrow horror path without undue psychological subtlety.

Javier (Carlos Areces), now a tubby, sweet-faced youth, gets his first job in a circus run by the violent Sergio (Antonio de la Torre of "Volver") and falls immediately in love with his beautiful girlfriend, the trapeze artist Natalia (Carolina Bang). As a masochistic, she's happily paired with Sergio the sadist, but she leads poor Javier on until he goes around the bend and, like Daddy, embarks a killing rampage dressed in his clown suit.

Using a hot iron and acid to permanently tattoo on his clown face, Javier is now more dangerous than the Joker. After his attack, Sergio has to have his own face sewn up by a vet, turning him into a scarred monster. He chases Javier and Natalia in a breath-taking climax high atop a giant cross in the Valley of the Fallen (a politically controversial monument erected by Franco to commemorate Civil War fighters) in a mighty set piece that tops the finale of "Common Wealth."

Areces is inventive and scary in main role, though it's impossible to sympathize with his madness. Other performances are gaudy but perfunctory. A tip of the hat to the make-up and costume department.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (In Competition)
Production companies: Tornasol Films, Castafiore Films, La Fabrique 2
Cast: Carlos Areces, Antonio De la Torre, Carolina Bang, Sancho Gracia, Juan Luis Galiardo, Enrique Villen, Manuel Tafalle, Manuel Tejada, Gracia Olayo, Santiago Segura, Roberto Alamo, Fofito, Sasha di Benedetto, Jorge Clemente
Director: Alex De La Iglesia
Screenwriter: Alex De La Iglesia
Producers: Gerardo Herrero, Mariela Besuievsky
Co-producers: Franck Ribiere, Verane Frediani
Director of photography: Kiko De la Rica
Production designer: Eduardo Hidalgo
Music: Roque Banos
Costumes: Paco Delgado, Nieves Sanchez
Make-up: Jose Quetglas
Editor: Alejandro Lazaro
Sales Agent: Films Distribution
No rating, 108 minutes