This is exactly the kind of film that it would probably be impossible to see outside of !Viva¡ or another major festival in the UK (I think it played at Edinburgh last Summer). And yet this is not a film by an unknown director. Álex de la Iglesia is a prominent Spanish filmmaker who first appeared with Acción mutante in 1992 but most of his titles that have been released in the UK in the past ten years have made little impact, except for the English language literary adaptation, The Oxford Murders (2008). Perhaps it is not surprising. Núria Triana-Toribio opens her book Spanish National Cinema (Routledge 2003) with a comment on de la Iglesia to the effect that he is “the present, and possibly the future of Spanish Cinema. At the same time, his films may also be the death-knell of the very idea of a Spanish national cinema”. She goes on to explain that with all their references to authentic Spanish culture, no films could be more ‘castizo‘ – ‘pure’ and ‘traditional’. Yet this is all in spirit of parodying that national culture. And, of course, the full range of the references is only accessible by a local audience.
Balada triste de trompeta is a Spanish-French co-production, so presumably the French production partners thought that they were funding something that would work in the French market. I make no claims to a great knowledge of Spanish culture but I think I got enough of the references. The English title doesn’t help much as the narrative is essentially about two clowns and particularly about the ‘sad clown’ (the ‘sad trumpet ballad’ is sung on screen in a cinema at one point and the trumpet makes another crucial appearance in a different context). Where do they get these English titles from?
Initially it is 1937 and a circus troupe finds itself caught up in the Republican resistance against the Nationalist rebels in Spain. Forced to fight, the circus clown hacks down several of the enemy with his sword/machete but is then captured and eventually put to work with other prisoners after the war has ended, building the Fascist Monument to the Fallen in Valle de los Caidos. The clown’s son, Javier, now a young teenager, attempts to sabotage the building work but in the melée his father is killed and the boy wounds the Fascist colonel in charge. In 1973 the son has now fulfilled his father’s prophecy and become a ‘sad clown’ who is perpetually beaten up in the clown’s act. When he joins a new troupe he meets a particularly vicious clown who is the star attraction. This clown, Sergio, also beats up his girlfriend, the voluptuous Natalia. Javier feels compelled to intervene and is encouraged by Natalia – who nonetheless responds to Sergio’s violent sexual advances. (Natalia is played by Carolina Bang, who is married to the director.) The three-way battle eventually ends in a full-blown action sequence on top of the giant crucifix that stands above the Basilica of the Monument of the Fallen.
You certainly couldn’t accuse Álex de la Iglesia of holding back. This an extravaganza of comedy, horror, extreme violence and sexuality that is part Hitchcockian, part Todd Browning and part every schlocky horror film featuring clowns or children’s entertainers. All of this fits the extended allegory about the Civil War and its aftermath – with Natalia as Spain, Sergio as the brutal tyrannical Fascist and Javier as the anti-fascist. As one review that I read suggested, it’s almost as if de la Iglesia was trying to demonstrate to Guillermo del Toro exactly what a Spanish film about the war might look like. In one of the most bizarre scenes, Javier is reduced to acting as a gun-dog (don’t ask!) during a shoot organised by ageing Fascists and . . . no, I won’t spoil it.
Balada triste de trompeta won a Silver Lion at Venice in 2011 for Álex de la Iglesia as well as several other awards at different festivals. It is available as a Region 2 DVD/Blu-ray from Spain. Did I ‘enjoy’ it? I’m not sure, but I was never bored and I’m glad that I saw it. Thanks to Cornerhouse and !Viva¡ for the opportunity.