In the immediate Post-Franco era, Spanish film set out to explore and perhaps heal the trauma of the near-half century of fascist rule. In the 1990s, though, a new crop of filmmakers began to move away from social realism and explore the contemporary Spanish character, in particular through the fantastic genres (horror, sci-fi and fantasy.) Álex de la Iglesia burst onto the scene with two films (El Día de la Bestia, Accion Mutante) that introduced this new era of filmmaking. In his new film, Balada Triste (The Last Circus), de la Iglesia explores the first and last years of fascism in a parody of the Spanish Civil War through a tale of love, revenge, mutilation, and circus clowns.
Javier is a young man with a past; in an attempt to free his father (who worked as a clown) from hard labor under the fascists, he inadvertently causes his father’s death. Fast forward to 1973, and Javier is the sad clown, the butt of the happy clown’s jokes and pranks. But in the strange circus he joins, the happy clown, Sergio, is almost a homicidal maniac who beats his girlfriend, the trapeze artist Natalia, with whom Javier falls in love. While Natalia teases and flirts with Javier, Sergio discovers her treachery, driving Javier to madness and destruction. Everything about the film is operatic, from the extreme emotions, heightened senses, glorious and bizarre costumes and dramatic sets. But then, this is the circus is the old-fashioned carnival sense, with bearded ladies, midgets, and strong men. Such a business attracts the most extreme of humanity, who cannot find a place anywhere else, particularly in Franco’s Spain which demanded order and obedience. Javier hides naked in the forest, eats raw meat, literally bites the hand that fed him, and exacts his revenge in the most horrifying and yet strangely appropriate way.
As the film rolls through its plot twists and turns, and the faces of all involved become mutilated both literally and metaphorically, de la Iglesia cranks up the intensity and pulls the audience with him on a power and inescapable hook. As an exploration of the character and people of Spain during this era, when some fought for their freedom and others just tried to find ways to survive, Javier represents the forgotten Spain, who tried to fight but was too young, lost amid a country that would not acknowledge his pain, and only able to find a home among similar kind, who also had been left behind. The climax is almost too dramatic in scope to be believed, but having journeyed with the characters, the audience lets out a huge cry at terrible death. De la Iglesia has a particular talent for carrying his audience through his strange and visceral imagination, hardly letting a breath be taken and yet leaving them gasping for more.