Venice 2010 Review: BALADA TRISTE DE TROMPETA (A Sad Trumpet Ballad)

Metaphors come second only to puns in the "things that make people groan" column. Especially if heavy-handed and extended to an hour and forty-seven minutes in length, as is the case with the Spanish film Balada triste de trompeta, which played in competition this morning here in Venice. Stylistically pitched somewhere between Terry Gilliam and an episode of Psychoville, Balada triste de trompeta - which translates into English as A Sad Trumpet Ballad - starts off set in Madrid in 1937, during the civil war. A troupe of clowns are entertaining some children, with the sound of aerial bombardment in the background, when suddenly a group of republican soldiers burst in and arm the clowns - desperate to turn the tide of a losing battle. What follows is a bizarre, fast-paced and dizzying scene of graphic carnage, as a big scary clown hacks up fascist rebel soldiers with a machete. Imprisoned after the battle is lost, the clown's son is left without a family... and with revenge in his heart. Then we are taken forward in time to 1973 and the dying days of the Franco regime. The son has grown up and become a "sad clown" unable to laugh or make jokes owing to the tragedy of his childhood years. He falls in love with an acrobat, who flirts with him and seems to want him, but who is in fact the girlfriend of an abusive "happy clown", who beats her (which is again depicted graphically). Soon the two clowns are engaged in an on-going and self-destructive feud, over a woman who can't decide whether she wants somebody violent, but exciting, or somebody who wants to look after her, but lacks fire. It's not too much of a stretch to say that the indecisive women is Spain and her two lovers are the two sides from the Spanish civil war. She flirts briefly with communism of the republic, but is seduced by the strength of fascist dictatorship. It is an allegory about the destructive nature of totalitarian, with ideologues destroying the country they claim to love, as violence begets violence and everybody gets hurt in the process - with emphasis place on those caught in the middle. In that sense it is like a less subtle version of Post Mortem. As 1973 continues the Prime Minister, General Blanco, is assassinated by ETA terrorists who are pointedly asked the question "which circus are you from?" A new group of "clowns" have arrived on the scene. Basically, violent political struggle is perpetrated by dimwits who are destroying Spain, in a repeating cycle of cruelty and revenge. Director, Alex de la Iglesia, has made something highly stylised and visually daring, and there are some great bits of news reel montage (such as during the stunning opening credits), but overall the film failed to work for me. The high-symbolism of every event in the narrative was grating and the humour was uncomfortable: revolving around the ultra-violence as the beautiful Carolina Bang gets smacked around and people are stabbed, shot and beaten. Much of the audience seemed to disagree with my assessment however, with enthusiastic rounds of applause greeting some scenes, such as when the sad clown protagonist, Javier (the likable nebbish presence of Carlos Areces), bites the outstretched, paternalistic hand of an ageing General Franco. In fact the bloody revenge fantasy that takes place as Javier kills fascists left and right, reminded me of Inglourious Basterds, with the quirky circus troupe ensemble feeling like something from Micmacs - a strange mix indeed. But, in spite of my problems with the film's use of violence and its heavy-handed abuse of metaphor, it is at least unlike anything else in competition here. It is fast-paced, takes unexpected turns and does things you've never seen before as it aims to entertain. The sequence which sees one clown permanently disfiguring his face (using acid and irons) is hard to watch, but brilliantly inventive all the same. Also, for such a self-consciously symbolic and political film, it is packed with action, slapstick comedy and a big-scale CGI filled finale, which definitely marks it out from the slow and mannered fare that tends to dominate film festivals.
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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.