Friday, August 19, 2011

THE LAST CIRCUS -- Álex de la Iglesia's latest surprise -- opens in New York City

With THE LAST CIRCUS (Balada triste de trompeta), writer/
director Álex de la Iglesia is working at the absolute peak of his powers so far. This is not to say that the guy doesn't have a ways yet to go: As usual, his movie's over the top -- it has to be, given what is going on -- but it is also, as usual, too long. Yet it is so compelling, thought-provoking, riveting and entertaining that you're likely to forgive it its trespasses right on the spot.

When I first saw this film -- at last year's Spanish Cinema Now series via the Film Society of Lincoln Center, I was impressed. Seeing it again last week, it seemed every bit as strong. Maybe stronger. As a metaphor for a put-upon (if not downright masochistic) Spain under Franco, it is disturbingly provocative. From the first scene, in the late 1930s, when soldiers (above) break into a circus as it is performing and insist that the male performers take up immediate arms, we feel "anti-military."  But these are not Franco's troops; they're the army of the Republic: the good guys. Not so fast, de la Iglesia is telling us, and by the time his movie reaches its fevered climax, just about everybody has egg -- not to mention blood -- on his face.

This engaging filmmaker/provocateur (shown at left) -- Day of the Beast, Perdita Durango (aka Dance With the Devil), La Comunidad, Dying of LaughterThe Perfect Crime -- enjoys forcing us to confront some dearly-held notions that's he has turned upside down (here it's our take on the Spanish Civil War) and then played out (and out and out: there's that length problem again) until we cry uncle. His penultimate film, The Oxford Murders (well worth seeing and now streaming via Netflix) seems at first oddball for de la Iglesias because it is so cerebral. But even in its intelligence, it manages to go over the top (and into too-lengthy territory) before hurtling us to the brink of brilliance and insanity.

The Last Circus begins with a scene of enormous shock quotient, done with amazing skill: You'll hardly be able to take a breath for the fast few minutes, so fast and furious do events, bullets and bodies fly. (Machete waving has rarely seemed such fun.) From here, we skip ahead in time and are introduced to three characters who remain with us throughout the film, growing, changing and keeping our mouths agape.

This threesome is played by Carlos Areces (shown above), Antonio de la Torre (at right, center -- from last year's SCN film Gordos and many more of our favorite Spanish movies) and Caroline Bang (below, swinging). I don't think I am giving away the store when I say that you can view them, respec-tively, as the Repub-lican left (passive variety, for awhile), the Fascist right, and Spain herself. That's if you want to do the "symbols" thing, and as The Last Circus is definitely an anti-war movie, go ahead. Yet it is also such an eye-poppingly wonderful piece of visual art and a humdinger of a story, feel free to consider those symbols at a later date.

I could go on (and on -- just like de la Iglesias) about this terrific, visual knock-out of a movie, but as Magnolia Pictures has picked it up for U.S. distribution and is releasing it today, I'll just say: See it. In New York City, it has opened at the Cinema Village. To see other playdates, cities and theaters across the country, simply click here.

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