The great filmmakers are often celebrated for their extraordinary control: the exacting science of Hitchcock’s suspense, the omnipresent symmetry of Kubrick’s vision, the dour Wagnerian pomp of Christopher Nolan. But there’s a lot to be said for id, too. The chaotic subconscious mind is its own glorious school, a place for the likes of Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi and David Lynch to stretch out and just, you know, get really fucking crazy. With Spain’s Alex de la Iglesia, add one more to that subversive list. TIFF is running a retrospective of de la Iglesia’s films from January 30th to March 28th, and amid all the batshit bonkers onscreen are some really indelible moments of brilliance. From the apocalyptic satanic horror of The Day of the Beast (1995) to the jet-black comedy of A Ferpect Crime (2004), de la Iglesia isn’t for everyone, but if putting the words wild satirical dark guignol together gets you salivating like Pavlov’s dog on a leash, you’re gonna wanna dive into this head-first.
Originally a comic-book artist, de la Iglesia found an even better medium for his feverish imaginings with film. Renowned Spanish director Pedro Almodavar (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989), Talk to Her (2002)) recognized a kindred spirit in de la Igesia, endorsing and mentoring his work early on. His second feature The Day of the Beast garnered tremendous success for him, winning six Goyas (the Spanish Oscar) and marking him as an outré talent too canny to be denied. In the vein of The Omen (1976), a Catholic priest has cracked the code of the book of Revelations to reveal the date the Antichrist will be born. (The date is of course Christmas eve, the source of much black comedy in the background.) Perversely, he believes that if he can commit enough evil in time by sinning incessantly, he can convince the Devil that he has truly converted to the darkness. In so doing he hopes to win the Devil’s confidence and glean the location of the Antichrist’s birth, in order to murder the spawn of Satan in the crib and save the world. Unfortunately, he has no clue where to begin in his quest to surrender to Lucifer, so he starts in Madrid. He’s aided in his grim and hapless quest by an impressionable death-metal enthusiast and the charlatan host of a TV show on the occult (after kidnapping him to prove he’s serious). Anarchic, violent and hilarious, de la Iglesias follows his three would-be satanic stooges gleefully as they stumble across the city haphazardly drawing closer to the true heart of darkness. The movie is bursting with unforgettable images and morbid comic intensity, heralding an original, albeit pretty gonzo, talent.
The amusingly titled A Ferpect Crime, or Crimen Ferpecto, is constantly subject to unwanted spell-correction, even by one its own official distributors, but is very much intentional in its jumbled title. The film details a horrifically flawed “perfect murder” with bleakly funny panache. Born in a department store, Rafael has made the place his life’s work. A glibly successful salesman, he has the pick of the female staff and is determined to win a promotion to floor manager, all part of his climb to capitalistic success. He loses, of course, to his detested sales rival. Their mutual hatred boils over the next day, coming to blows in a change-room, and Rafael accidentally kills his awful new boss. Really terribly bad follows to unbelievably worse in short order, as Rafael discovers one of his coworkers, an ugly duckling clerk named Lourdes, is helping him to cover up the murder. She uses her assistance and the knowledge of his crime to blackmail him into an unending affair with her. Before he knows it, she’s forcing him to fire the beauties he’d lavished amorous attentions on before, and dragging him back to meet her dysfunctional family as a prelude to marriage. Rafael is a seedy, unctuous clod who probably deserves everything he gets, but still, in Lourdes he meets his horrific match. A Ferpect Crime was one of de la Iglesia’s biggest critical hits in North America, and it’s grimly entertaining as Rafael tumbles into an abyss of his own making.
The Last Circus (2010) is a tour de force of satire, gruesome historical allegory and unhinged sadistic clowns. Really. If you’re scared of clowns, do not see this movie. You will never recover. You will run gibbering into the night leaving your underwear and one shoe dangling from the fence out back. For those of us who can handle our clowns, at least at a safe distance, this has to be de la Iglesia’s masterpiece. Still wildly uneven, The Last Circus is utterly compelling. Opening in 1937, a pair of lacklustre clowns entertain children at a theatre, when government soldiers burst in. They recruit every able-bodied man in the room to fight the Francoist rebels, even conscripting the clown to fight in a dress as he wields a machete. After a frenzied battle, the clown is captured by the Francoists, and in time, he swears his son Javier to seek vengeance. We then flash forward to 1973, as Javier dons his father’s sad clown mantle. Plump and morose, he follows the life his father has laid out for him. His nemesis at the circus is the happy clown, a brutal and abusive lout named Sergio. Together the two men vie for the affections of Sergio’s lover, the beautiful dancer Natalia. She loves Sergio’s animalistic attentions, but not the fisticuffs that accompany them, and finds herself attracted to Javier’s soft-spoken empathy and intelligence. The triangle implodes as it must, pushing all the characters into new terrifying dimensions. The dam of Javier’s humility breaks utterly, and years of bile burst forth in an epic maraud. The dude seriously snaps. That all of this at some level is a weird allegory for the push and pull of Spain’s tormented relationship with its dictatorial leader Franco is clear, with little time for nuance as bullets fly, bodies drop and Javier cackles insanely. The bravura climax of the film is worthy of Hitchcock himself, as the three chase each other to the summit of an immense cross in the fascist architectural extravaganza at the Valley of the Fallen. In the face of such extremity, Natalia’s choice becomes horribly reduced. Whether to the left or the right, these monsters are indistinguishable.
Alex de la Iglesia: Dancing with the Devil runs at TIFF in Toronto from January 30th to March 28th, kicking off with a screening of The Day of the Beast on Friday, January 30th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox at 9:30pm. For tickets and information on all the films screening, see here.