Discovering new filmmakers is one of the pleasures of delving into the Criterion Channel. I can’t express how thrilling it was to be introduced to the work of Luis García Berlanga, about whom I previously knew very little.
No surprise that a man who began his studies in philosophy before enrolling in the impressively named “Institute of Cinematographic Investigations and Experiences” would turn out to be a storyteller whose technical skill is matched by his intelligent and thoughtful irony. Even less shocking is that a man who volunteered to serve in World War II to save his Republican father from being executed would also have a critical opinion of his government.
Criterion’s thoroughly satisfying five-film serving of Luis García Berlanga’s work shows a man who shockingly got away with some very sharp criticisms of Francoist Spain, couching its failings in humour and smart characterizations that make them a pleasure to watch even if you’re not someone who is out to burn the men in charge. Here they are in preferential order:
A tiny town is all abuzz in preparation for its Christmas Eve. Its more well-to-do residents have decided to take part in a charitable event that has each of them inviting someone less fortunate to dine with them. They’ve planned a whole day of celebrations leading up to the meal, including a parade involving movie stars from Madrid as well as a beauty contest and a product tie-in giveaway. The pace is relentless as everything keeps threatening to fall apart but manages to be pulled off in the nick of time. A number of characters who take part in the varied activities have their own private dramas (including the coordinator keeping an eye on his beautiful wife, who in turn is romanced by one of the stars). At the centre of all this madness is Placido, whose family is poor and lives in the public bathroom that they run. Placido owns a motorbike that he needs to make monthly payments on or his debt will be sent to collections and cause him more problems than he can afford. Asking for advances and collecting debts between his parade duties, his attempts to recoup form the endless rhythm of this painfully funny, and at the same time just painful, look at a society whose international reputation as being unified under a totalitarian force is merely the front for a fractured population of the greedy and the desperate. Gorgeously shot in widescreen monochrome, it’s a feast for all senses.
The Executioner (1963)
The Criterion Channel calls this Luis García Berlanga’s masterpiece and, of this group of films, it’s certainly the sharpest and most complex. Nino Manfredi is terrific as José Luis, an undertaker who falls in love with the daughter of an executioner (José Isbert), a job that inspires pure dread. When his father-in-law’s application for an apartment in a new complex finally comes through, a bureaucratic error and the older man’s impending retirement threaten it until he comes up with the perfect solution: why not have José Luis give up undertaking and become an executioner in his place? Our hero agrees very reluctantly, hoping to be assigned to cases that are pardoned and don’t require him to put someone to death. However, a work trip to a gorgeous seaside town doesn’t work out so well when it turns out that he might actually have to do the dirty deed. The complications that this pathetic hero gets himself into simply because he wants a wife and child speak volumes about Berlanga’s opinion of his society, but conveys his excoriating social criticism with so much generous humour that it always feel like a lesson you receive with gratitude.
Miracles of Thursday (1957)
Another hilarious comedy about a small town, this time concerning a Spanish village that was once a popular destination for its therapeutic waters. The perfect solution for reigniting interest in the place, according to a group of the town’s self-appointed men of prominence, is to fake a miracle. Setting up by the railroad tracks, they set off fireworks, play choral music on a record player and convince Don José (José Isbert), who plays a series of meddling old men in this collection, to dress up as the local patron saint, San Dimas. After his portrayal rouses interest among the locals, Don José refuses to continue doing it, but then morally shifty Martino (Richard Basehart) shows up in their town and tells the men he knows their scam, making them nervous that he’ll tell the public what they have done. Agreeing to help them turn it into an industry, Martino eventually turns their local curiosity into a spectacle attended by thousands, but it ends up weighing on the men’s guilt the better that the scheme works. Berlanga really takes a risk by ridiculing Catholic belief and criticizing the lack of support being given by Franco’s government to the traditional towns it claims to preserve, but perhaps the morally sound ending kept the censor’s scissors at bay, or simply the fact that the film is too funny to ignore.
Welcome Mr Marshall (1953)
A tiny hamlet in rural Spain receives a visit from their delegate letting them know that the Americans will soon be coming through as part of the Marshall Plan. He hopes the city will treat them to a proper welcoming. The city overdoes itself turning its citizens into classic (mythical) ideas of traditional Andalusians, while the people prepare for the bounty of gifts they hope to receive, lining up to name their material requests like they were in one of Eva Perón’s giveaways. Berlanga made a habit of setting his comedies in isolated Spanish hamlets as a way criticizing Francoist claims that bucolic country life was strengthened by the leader’s overreaching hand. What we have here is a petty and ignorant population who has little idea of its own culture while having rather extreme ideas of the anticipated visitors. The lengthy dream sequences toward the end throw plenty of criticism the other way as well, calling out the KKK and the HUAC as contradictory aspects of American heroism, topped off by a wild west fantasy that shows that everything–from America to Spain to charity–is a fantasy.
The Rocket from Calabuch (1956)
The weakest film in this collection though far from a bad movie. This charmer stars Edmund Gwenn as an American rocket scientist hiding out in the titular Spanish town after running away from his work on the atom bomb. Authorities are hunting him down to keep state secrets contained, while he gets himself involved in the concerns of the village inhabitants, including a romantically charming smuggler (Franco Fabrizi), an elegant schoolteacher (Valentina Cortese), a feisty lighthouse keeper (José Isbert) and his conflicts with the local priest (Félix Fernández). Gwenn does his best to enjoy his time in this Mediterranean paradise while knowing that his past will eventually catch up with him, particularly when he helps the town create a rocket that satisfies a rivalry with a nearby village and it leads to him being recognized. Gentle and good-natured, Berlanga puts as much commentary into his observation of Spanish society as in his sharpest films but at a much more relaxed pace.