In this exciting episode we are taking a look at some selected works of Álex de la Iglesia, after a number of stars came into alignment that hinted at him being worthy of further investigation than our brief exposure to him at the EIFF many moons ago. So, we should do that then.
The Day of The Beast
Álex Angulo’s Father Ángel, a Basque priest, believes that he has cracked a code in The Book of Revelation (I’ve long thought the Spanish name for this book of the bible, Apocalipsis, or “Apocalypse” is so much better and more dramatic, but I digress) that says the Antichrist will be born in Madrid on Christmas Eve. He aims to commit as much sin as possible on that day so that he can meet Satan, sell his soul to him, and then be present at the birth to kill the child and end evil forever. Well, it’s a plan.
To this end, he travels to the capital (I suspect this is seen in Spain in much the same way as someone British going to Babylondon to confront evil, though only without the clever pun) and sets about being a rotter and no mistake. Wandering into a music shop, he unexpectedly enlists the help of Santiago Segura’s José María as a disciple: a committed Satanist and generally friendly fellow.
José María and Ángel together take hostage one “Professor” Cavan, a TV personality and “expert” on the occult, who they believe can help them summon yer Lucifer fella. This, much to the surprise of obvious charlatan Cavan, works, though it’s possible that the LSD José María gave them beforehand also had a part to play. Who can say?
The story continues through a number of absurd and comical scenes, and a crisis of faith in his mission by Father Ángel, until finally the trio confront ol’ Goatface McGee in a corruption of the story of the nativity, featuring the film’s most horrendous and shocking scene.
Like Tokyo Godfathers, which we discussed recently, The Day of the Beast would be a good candidate for an “Unusual Christmas Films” episode, as the Three Daft Bastards attempt to bring gifts (of death) to an infant at Christmas. While it relies too heavily on farce and slapstick at points, The Day of the Beast is otherwise thoroughly entertaining, with a real, and quite biting, socio-political undercurrent as the well-intentioned but blinkered priest tries to fight an assumed singular source or manifestation of evil, blinding him to the more quotidian evils like José María’s casually racist mother, or the group of wealthy, fascist vigilantes appearing in the background throughout, who kill and torture immigrants and the homeless to “clean up” Madrid.
Its general likeability owes a huge amount to Angulo in the lead role, who brings sympathy and warmth to his would-be religious avenger, as well as an excellent turn from Segura as the hapless José María, the Sancho Panza to Father Ángel’s Don Quixote. Armando De Razza’s Cavan, the third Not-So-Wise Man, who turns from cynical charlatan to committed believer, rounds out the leading roles well. It’s certainly uneven, but it’s a distinctive, funny, entertaining and pretty unique film that I would generally recommend.
Everything positive that I have said until now, though, can be tossed aside, as the film has a fatal flaw: though on a quest to commit as much sin as possible, Father Ángel, mere moments after arriving in Madrid, pushes a mime or other street performer from a railing down into the entrance of a subway, thereby in one act doing more good for the world than the evil committed in the rest of the film. It’s a sham! (It does, however, claw back a number of points for mute, naked, acid-taking Grandpa, who should be in all films.)
Also known as Dance with the Devil, in which Rosie Perez’s titular character (I mean, Perdita, not Satan, although there’s some crossover in outlook I suppose) is heading back to Mexico to scatter the remains of her dead sister. While there, she meets Javier Bardem’s Romeo Dolorosa, a sort of jack of all criminal trades that looks like a cross between Little Richard and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, whose current primary scam is setting himself up as a “priest” of Santeria, aided by Adolfo, who looks and sounds like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, because that’s who’s playing the part.
Now, giving a blow by blow account of what happens in Perdita Durango is a bit of a fool’s errand, as it’s basically just a violent crime road trip. Finding out that the source material, Barry Gifford’s 59° and Raining: The Story of Perdita Durango is a sort-of spiritual sequel to his Wild at Heart makes a lot of sense in retrospect, this having a similar unhinged, free-associating vibe to it.
Nonetheless, I should at least make you aware that it’s the sort of film that takes a break from a scheme involving the illegal transport of refrigerated human foetuses to make cosmetic moisturiser in order to kidnap people at random to murder in a ceremony, so it’s not doing well on the sympathetic protagonist scale. Still, not every film needs one, and our anti-heroes here are at least interesting enough to keep you erngauged with their antics.
Which is not to say that it’s necessarily good, although I also don’t think it’s bad, exactly. By it’s nature it lacks focus, ultimately spending a bit too long flashing back to Romeo’s childhood, or dialogue with the two teen kidnapees that doesn’t do much to shed light on anyone involved’s worldview, or with an underserved James Gandolfini as the DEA agent on the trail of Romeo.
There’s a very 90’s Indy feel to most of the film, in a way that these days we’d call Tarantino-esque, and this perhaps feels most comparable to something like Natural Born Killers, at least in the way that it seems to value shock over having any kind of point. I’ll concede at least that there are some people who would make an argument that there’s more to NBK, even if I don’t particularly agree, but I don’t think there would be anyone going to bat for Perdita Durango.
Still, I was entertained enough for the duration of the film, thanks to the inclusion of buckets of nihilistic violence and a Nic Cage level performance of scenery chew-nihilation from Javier Bardem. Really, my main complaint with the film is that, despite the title and her strong introduction, before long Perditia is a spectator in her own story, carried along in Romeo’s current apparently only because a film needed to happen. Strange.
Anyway, after hearing the name bandied about for years I’m glad to have finally seen it, but I’ll most likely never go back to it.
800 balas (or 800 Bullets), stars Sancho Gracia as Julián, a stuntman and stunt coordinator who worked during the glory days of the Spanish-shot Spaghetti Westerns, and who now replays his glory days in the Western-themed tourist attraction of “Texas Hollywood” in Almería (a real place, as it happens), entertaining handfuls of tourists with scenes of “cowboys and injuns” and less than gracious tours of the “Museum of the West”.
From this (well, that and his cut of a cannabis business run out of the town) he scrapes a meagre living, enough to keep him in alcohol and, occasionally, ladies of negotiable virtue, which will suffice for him. Certainly, it’s enough to quieten his demons, the loudest of which is the death of his son, also a stuntman, whose death in a stunt gone wrong (and a genuinely wince-inducing stunt at that) opens the film. These demons, and a well-suppressed basic humanity, threaten to be woken up fully by an unexpected arrival: his grandson, Carlos (Luis Castro), a little brat of a child who has run away from a school trip.
Carlos is a spoiled little rich kid, whose uptight mother, Laura (Carmen Maura), may pay more attention to her business (particularly Chekhov’s Theme Park Proposal) than her son, and who at the very least has no interest in talking about her late husband, Carlos’s father. An unexpected discovery during a temper tantrum gives Carlos some clues as to his ancestry, and it’s for that reason he skedaddles to Almería. Here he bonds with Julián, who the film portrays as the missing and necessary macho influence in his life (Álex de la Iglesia’s films do seem to be marked out by the idea of women as, if not the enemy, then a controlling and emasculating force on men, and this is certainly not the only time we’ll be talking about that in this episode). Julián eventually also bonds with Carlos, though in his case it’s considerably more begrudgingly.
The director’s trademark excess is embodied in this film in a scene of wanton debauchery (is that a tautology?) where the employees of Texas Hollywood, as well as some locals, immigrant farm workers and the aforementioned ladies of negotiable virtue, go hog wild with the credit card Carlos’s mum gave him for emergencies. As well as leaving The Pogues’ “Fiesta” constantly swirling around my head for the past two days, it also left me considering Carlos to be the world’s luckiest adolescent, though feeling decidedly uncomfortable about it.
The next day a super-pissed Laura arrives, and, to punish Julián, fires Chekhov’s Theme Park Proposal, whereby her company buys the Western town to tear it down and puts Julián and his co-workers out of a job. Julián then purchases the 800 bullets of the title, and makes an armed stand against the new owners, along with his colleagues. This final third really drags, and sees the humour quotient substantially reduced in favour of overlong and underwhelming action scenes as the cast of Texas Hollywood fend off the police.
It’s this last section that lets the film down most, a film which I had really been quite enjoying up to that point. Not that it’s a section entirely without merit – there is still both humour and warmth – but the actions of the characters don’t stand up to a great deal of scrutiny and it really does outstay its welcome. For the most part, though, I enjoyed my time with 800 Bullets, and much of that has to do with a great central turn from Gracia, whose charisma does a lot to make up for the fact that Julián is a stupid, selfish and absolute tit. Necessarily, I suppose, due to its theme of machismo, the female players are underserved, particularly Terele Pávez, who plays Rocío, Julián’s estranged wife and Carlos’s grandmother, which is rather a pity.
800 Bullets also works as a paean of sorts to those great films shot in Almería (which include the Dollars trilogy, as well as historical epics like El Cid and Lawrence of Arabia), the dramatic landscape itself doing much of that work by simply… existing. It’s a pretty decent film, all in all, but I could’ve done without the predictable “cameo” at the end (and a particularly crappy body double): I never doubted Julián’s stories of the past, and never considered that the point, assuming the crux of his character to be “can’t let go of the past”, not “made the past up”.
Or The Ferpect Crime is Blightly, or if you’re in the USA, The Perfect Crime, which again does not speak highly of studio’s opinion of the intelligence of their audience.
Guillermo Toledo’s Rafael González has it all, or at least, has a plan to eventually get it all. He’s the superstar salesman of a Madrid department store, managing the woman’s clothing department with eyes on a promotion, as well as eyes on every nubile assistant in the store, who mystifyingly find him irresistible. But who am I to judge appearances?
Anyway the competition for the promotion turns nasty, and after a mild brawl his competition, Luis Varela’s Don Antonio Fraguas is accidentally killed. This crime isn’t perfect at all, and Rafael scrambles to cover his tracks. Unexpectedly, he has some help, as the, ahem, homely assistant Lourdes (Mónica Cervera), who has been besotted with Rafael for a while. She helps dispose of the body, at the low, low price of blackmailing Rafael into both a relationship and the run of the floor, having him fire anyone she dislikes.
Well, this can’t stand, so Rafael will have to find a way out, even if that means another ferpect crime to kill Lourdes, aided by the imagined ghost of Don Antonio as Rafael’s mental state deteriorates.
I suppose by this point you’re used to the idea of black humour in Álex de la Iglesia films, and this is no exception. I found this entirely entertaining throughout, apart from a final act addition of clowns, which is naturally terrifying. More on this in our next review.
There’s not much point looking for any broader point or commentary on society here, I think it’s just here to have a laugh for an hour and a half(ish), and it achieved that handily. So much so that I don’t think I have a great deal else to say about it, other than to recommend it.
The Last Circus
I learned an important lesson from Balada triste de trompeta, or The Last Circus, and it’s not what it’s about (unlike Perdita Durango I am confident that it is about something, and I even know what and could, indeed, expound upon it), but rather that one should never trust one’s one memory over your friend’s. “Eurgh, it’s about clowns” I recently kvetched. “It’s only got clowns at the beginning”, said Scott. The bastard. It has clowns throughout and, as has been well-established, clowns are the worst. It does, admittedly, have a clown disfiguring his own face with caustic soda and a steam iron, then dressing up in a makeshift clown-cum-bishop costume before holding an Uzi in each hand and murdering people, so it’s a pretty unique take on clowns, I’ll give it that. Still, though, clowns.
(I would like to make it clear, here, that I have no fear of clowns, a phobia that some people do have. Rather, I think clowns are a societal ill: a worthless, talentless, group of individuals that exist solely to perpetuate misery and make the world a generally sadder, less-magical place. Like Tory MPs.)
Beginning in the middle of the Spanish Civil War, a troupe of clowns is “entertaining” some children (these children are laughing, so that’s historical veracity right out of the window from the get-go, though they start screaming soon enough, which seems much more correct) when a division of the Republican Militia bursts in and forces the clowns to join in the fight against Franco’s Nationalists. One clown, played by Santiago Segura and referred to, inexplicably, as “the funny clown”, finds his true calling and slaughters most of a regiment armed with just a machete.
The clown is imprisoned and forced to perform slave labour, allowing him the opportunity to see his son, Javier, and tell him that he should become a clown, but that he’s seen too much sorrow to be the funny clown, so must become the sad clown, the “clown that nobody laughs at”. So… a clown?
The young Javier has more immediate concerns in mind, though, and performs some acts of defiance against the Nationalist forces, one of which inadvertently leads to his father’s death and seems to cause Javier to become timid and unwilling to speak out against aggression, something we realise when we meet the adult Javier (Carlos Areces) in the 1970s, about to start his first job as a clown. Here he meets Sergio, or Begbie the Clown, (Antonio de la Torre), a violent psychopath and wife-beater who rules with fear over the rest of the circus, even the owner.
Javier falls in love with Sergio’s girlfriend (the stunningly attractive Carolina Bang), another member of the circus, but like the others is too afraid to stand up to Sergio or stop his violent assaults of Carolina. That may, in fact, have been very smart self-preservation as, when he eventually does do so, it does not end well for him. Close to, but not quite, dead, something goes “click” inside Javier’s brain as he lies, broken, in a hospital bed, and it’s at this point that Javier, and the film, goes what I believe is correctly called “proper mental”, setting in motion a series of events that will see Javier go feral, eat a raw deer, become a human gundog, bite General Franco and then become a heavily-armed Pope Pennywise, as I mentioned earlier.
After writing this I went back and listened to the discussion Scott and I had on our previous podcast incarnation about this film (this being the only film in this episode either of us had seen before), and I was struck by how much less negative I felt about it this time around. Now, I can’t say that I like it, but I’m certainly much more appreciative of it. (I was not struck, though, by the deep antipathy I showed towards clowns in that discussion ten years ago, because that is a true and abiding stance, but I was amused (though, still, disappointed) by Scott’s assertion that “there’s no standing orders for armies to kill all clowns”. And we call ourselves “civilised”…)
The leaps of time, location and knowledge were of little consequence to me on this viewing, and likewise the tonal shifts, because there’s just so much else crazy going on, but also because I was focusing on background details more (some of which become foreground features), including the regular references to the case of El Lute, seen as a hero by many and a symbol of opposition to Franco.
There’s certainly a lot of symbols here. And references. And allegories. And metaphors. All in a film that begins as a war movie, of sorts, and ends like Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein done as grand opera, all on top of a giant cross built above a cave filled with the skeletons of tens of thousands of soldiers, just in case there wasn’t enough imagery for you. It’s full, is what I’m saying. Overfull, really, and that’s the problem: there’s certainly plenty to dig into, but there’s too much, and seemingly being unable to decide what to put in, De la Iglesia decided to go with everything, often all at the same time.
It’s certainly, like many of his films, distinctive, and quite unlike most others you’re likely to see, but The Last Circus could well have done with a good strong pinch of restraint. But also, clowns. Not something I could, in good conscience, recommend.
Witching and Bitching
I’m not quite sure how, or why, you get to Witching & Bitching from Las brujas de Zugarramurdi, but to be fair, it does fit.
José (Hugo Silva) and Antonio (Mario Casas) rob a pawn shop of their stock of wedding rings and make their escape, hijacking Manuel (Jaime Ordóñez)’s taxi and making for the French border, with José’s son Sergio (Gabriel Delgado) dragged along for the ride. Well, it was his day to look after the kid, much to estranged wife Silvia (Macarena Gómez)’s distaste.
The crime does not go unnoticed, and the crew are chased by Silvia and two police inspectors, Pacheco (Secun de la Rosa) and Calvo (Pepón Nieto), to the Navarrese town of Zugarramurdi, unknowingly playing into the wider plans of the resident witches.
Head witch Graciana (Carmen Maura) has a plan to claim Sergio as their chosen one for world domination, and not cook and eat him, as her mother Maritxu (Terele Pávez) absent-mindedly tries, and they set about capturing Sergio and crew, aided by Graciana’s daughter Eva (Carolina Bang) and, of course, their supernatural powers.
Understandably none too chuffed at the prospect of being Wickermanned, the lads attempt to escape the witches mansion they soon find themselves tied up in, aided by Eva who has fallen in love with José, largely for plot reasons, leading to a chaotic final act full of computer generated peril and offbeat shenanigans that kind of lost me, if I’m being honest.
Which is a shame, as the earlier two, only more grounded by comparison acts of the heist and the chase by cops, then witches, was a lot of fun, with a number of pretty funny lines and performances. Some of that’s still there in the closing reels, but it’s maybe leaning a bit too heavily on the CG for a bit of spectacle rather than going for the laughs, which is what I’m here for.
Again, I think attempting to divine deep meaning from a Álex de la Iglesia joint is probably an over-analysis too far, and while I perhaps prefer the more chaotic rawness of his earlier films, I’d still say that there’s more than enough laughs to be extracted from Witching and Bitching to make it worth your while.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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