Balada Triste de Trompeta (Álex de la Iglesia, 2010)
It’s actually been a couple of months since I watched Álex de la Iglesia’s Balada Triste de Trompeta, released in English-speaking countries as The Last Circus, and I’ve been having problems coming up with words to describe this movie. It defies genre, pinballing between war, comedy, thriller, romance, drama, and action without ever jarring. It is well-written, well-plotted, and well-presented, with the kind of eye to detail that got it nominated in every major category, and most of the minor ones, at the Goya Awards (it won two—for makeup and for special effects—and was nominated for an incredible thirteen more, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Cinematography; it lost in most categories to Pa Negre [the exception, best actor, went to Javier Bardem in Biutiful]). More to the point: all of the accolades are well-deserved indeed. De la Iglesia turned in one of the best films of 2010, hands down, with this absurd romp through the last seventy years of Spanish history.
We open in 1937, at a circus, where Andrés (Los Lunes al Sol‘s Enrique Villén), a happy clown, and his straight man, a sad clown, are in the middle of a skit when rebel soldiers burst in and forcibly draft Andrés, handing him a machete and sending him after a battalion of Franco’s army. In a scene obviously (and hilariously) lifted from the climax of Platoon, Andrés, still dressed in clown drag, charges a machine-gun nest, then dispatches the entire battalion before being taken prisoner by Franco’s men. Andrés leaves behind a son, Javier (played as an adult by Game of Werewolves‘ Carlos Areces), who by 1973 has decided to try and follow in his father’s footsteps and become a clown himself. However, Javier, whose life has been difficult, cannot be a happy clown—he is only fit to be a sad clown, and even then, only in a second-string travelling troupe run by drunk, sadistic Sergio (Volver‘s Antonio de la Torre), a happy clown himself when he’s not guzzling liquor and smacking people around. Sergio’s girlfriend, wire-walker Natalia (As Luck Would Have It‘s Carolina Bang), takes pity on the sad clown, and the two of them strike up a friendship…which could be dangerous, or even deadly, if it turns into something more.
No plot synopsis can even begin to do this movie justice, however, because there is so, so much more to it than plot. Ever since Tod Browning, circus troupes have been wonderful places to stock crazy, quirky characters in movies, and Balada Triste de Trompeta is no exception (the human cannonball, who gets so precious little screen time, is hysterical in every scene where he appears, for example). Actors and writer/director alike have done a sterling job with this, and of course one cannot forget the rest of the crew—everyone from DP Kiko de la Rica (Sex and Lucía) to… hell, I don’t know, the caterer?…helped make this into the fantastic movie it is. Overcome your fear of clowns—it’s worth it. ****