Jeeze, just the other day as I was talking about death, someone had to go and die on me. What a bummer. It wasn’t my good friend Rafa…we all somehow survived his birthday party…but it was a dear friend all the same. A dear friend I never got to know. His name was Luis García Berlanga and he was my favorite Spanish filmmaker. In fact, he was one of my favorite directors of any country in the world. He died on Saturday morning at the age of 88, after a long and always losing fight with Alzheimer’s.
Berlanga’s cinemegraphic trio (not trilogy) in the 50s and early 60s of Bienvenido Mr. Marshall (Welcome Mr. Marshall), Plácido y El Verdugo(The Executioner) are, in my opinion, among the greatest contributions to the history of cinema. Ever. They constitute (thanks in great part to the inestimable help from the legendary screenwriter Rafael Azcona) some of the finest examples of satire of the 20th Century. Even though they take place in Spain and are impregnated with innuendos about Spanish culture, their message and their conclusions, their portrayal of humanity and its behavior are universal. And to think he had the guts to do those movies at the height of Franco’s dictatorship makes everything that much more astounding. To this day, I cannot quite understand how he got away with it.
Bienvenido Mr. Marshall came out in 1953. I actually talked quite extensively on this film in my book on Spanish wine…which should give you an idea of just the kind of wine book it was. Bienvenido Mr. Marshall is an iconic film in the history of this country. It tells of a small rundown town in central Spain which learns that American diplomats are going to come and visit, and in order to make the place more in accordance with what they think the Americans would expect to find, they transform the place into a stereotypical village from Andalusia full of flamenco dancers and bullfighters. Everyone in the town dreams of how their lives will change when the Americans finally come to rescue them from their misery. There is so much about Spain in this film, so much about Spanish psyche, about human nature, human folly and its tragic consequences, that it never fails to impress me.
Plácido takes place in a provincial city where a charity is being held by a pressure-cooker company to raise money for the poor. The hilarious and sickening message revolves around an event in which real poor people are being auctioned and paid for by rich people so that the indigents can enjoy a nice Christmas meal in a wealthy person’s home. Plácido, the name of the main character, is a humble and only true selfish individual who is in the end the one who receives the least help. Berlanga makes us laugh time and time again as he lands punch after punch at the covetous and superficial nature of man. He masterfully weaves comedy with social criticism. It is my favorite of his filmography and arguably the greatest comedy in the history of Spain.
Then came The Executioner which, despite its title, is actually a humorous movie…until it turns harsh. A sweet elderly man is on the verge of retirement and worries that no one will be able to replace him as the public executioner. His daughter marries an undertaker and the young man takes on the public post as official executioner in order to have a steady job and thus buy his family a new apartment. He is wary of the job since he doesn’t want to execute anyone. The father-in-law assures him that the chances of his performing his duties are remote since the authorities always call off the death sentence in the end. The comedy becomes a tragedy when the poor man is tortured by the thought of his having to kill another man, and Berlanga deftly gives the executioner an appearance of the victim as the prison guards literally have to drag him into the room where he must carry out his orders. You would think he was the one being executed.
Every scene in these films is so cleverly packed with irony and venom that I never cease to be awed by his work. And it just wasn’t the stories. His directing was incredible. The long scene in Plácido when one of the wealthy hostesses learns that her dying poor man is not married to his “wife” and insists that they marry before he passes away is sheer perfection. It is a take that goes on for twenty minutes, with five different stories interweaving in the same room. And the closing scene in the prison kitchen of The Executioner runs along the same lines.
Berlanga continued to make some memorable films throughout his career, but ironically, it was during the period when his freedom of expression was most limited that he produced, in my opinion, his most creative and timeless films.
I recommend you discover Berlanga. And if you know enough Spanish, I recommend you discover him in that language. And if you know enough about Spain too, I recommend you discover him in that country.
One of cinema’s greatest legends is gone, and there is nothing we can do to prevent it. But that doesn’t serve as any comfort. I weep for thee Adonis!
– Goodbye Mr. Berlanga. Thanks for everything.