In the midst of the brutal Spanish Civil War, a 'Happy' circus clown is forcibly recruited by a militia. Still in his costume, he is handed a machete and led into battle against National soldiers, where he massacres an entire platoon. 40 years later, at the tail end of the Franco regime, that clown's son, Javier, dreams of following in his father’s career footsteps, but the legacy of his family's tragedies looms large. He finds work in a circus as its Sad Clown, and must suffer the daily abuse of the brutish Happy Clown, Sergio. Javier also meets and falls for Natalia, the gorgeous acrobat, and also the abused wife of Sergio. Natalia is torn between her affection towards Javier and her lust for Sergio.

Hijinks and history come together in Venice Film Festival winner.

SPANISH FILM FESTIVAL: The Last Circus opens not with a bang, but a chain reaction. The movie, from the unpredictable Spanish writer and director Alex de la Iglesia, has a convulsive, vivid energy and it is so consumed with creative intent that it’s both dazzling and frightening to begin with. In swift order a circus performance in 1937 Madrid, a city held by the leftist Republicans and besieged by the right wing Nationalists, has the Stupid Clown (Santiago Segura) doing his best to distract the children from nearby bomb blasts, but the war intrudes when a crazed Republican officer arrives and pressgangs the circus staff into his unit.

Clutching rifles, still dressed in their costumes, the new soldiers await battle in a vast factory space – the bearded lady is excused – that becomes a bloody battlefield as hordes of combatants charge towards each other. It is a war with the energy of a circus performance: blood sprays, not water; soldiers fly through the air, not acrobats. As if sensing the times, the Sad Clown cuts a swathe through the enemy. De La Iglesia’s control, and sense of bleak humour, is exacting, at one point cutting to a close-up of the Sad Clown’s comic shoes as he charges through the lines like an action film hero.

The strength of those first few scenes, which find the Sad Clown imprisoned with the victory of Franco’s Nationalists and dieing brutally (trampled by a horse) after urging his son, Javier (Jorge Clemente) to take revenge, carry through to the opening sequence, where martial music and a succession of stills that intermingle the iconography of politics, religions and entertainment. Wild-eyed as it is, The Last Circus feels capable of defining Spain through Franco’s long rule, of bending meaning into new and unexpected forms.

But the rest of the film, set in Madrid during 1973, narrows the focus and increasingly embraces the pulpy excesses of the horror and exploitation genres. That may be the filmmaker’s intent – look what you have done to us, he says – but his destructive romantic triangle in a faded circus between the adult Javier (Carlos Areces), now also a Sad Clown, the violent, masterful clown Sergio (Antonio de le Torre), and his trapeze artist girlfriend, Natalia (Carolina Bang), doesn’t quite have the fever dream nature of the opening.

Nonetheless, the director mixes and matches with mordant wit: slapstick visual gags and lyrical snatches of circus life mix together as the portly Javier discovers that Sergio is himself a brutal dictator. His trysts with Natalia, who Sergio beats and seduces with equal passion, happen at fun fairs and haunted houses, as if comic nightmares and treats are the only worlds these characters live in. De La Iglesia has the visual inventiveness of a Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Emir Kusturica’s sense of doomed celebration, but there’s nothing lyrical about his style. He embraces excess, in the form of extreme violence or punishing sexual congress, and demands the audience indulge.

As the narrative moves quicker and quicker – Javier almost kills Sergio, who becomes a monster after emergency facial reconstruction by a vet, retreats to the wilderness, is literally treated as a dog by a retired soldier who imprisoned his father, and thus bites a briefly seen Franco – the audacity is supplanted by extremism (as happens in so many revolutions). It’s impossible to look away, such is the picture’s demands, but the latter scenes don’t strike the same notes as those at the beginning.

Even that, however, may be in the design of The Last Circus. Flawed the conclusion might be, but it feels part of the movie at a DNA level, as if these failings are the only way that such a tale could be concluded. It’s damaged, but unstoppable.