Thanks to Natalia Caballero for introducing me to the work of Luis Garcia Berlanga.
The Executioner. It doesn't sound much like the title of a domestic comedy, and to account for this contradiction, some backstory may be required. Luis Garcia Berlanga is a Spanish filmmaker, still active today at the age of eighty-seven, responsible for the most subversive and powerful films to come out of Franco's Spain, particularly between 1953 and 1963. Of course, a filmmaker with a satirical bent in a fascist dictatorship had better be genuinely subversive, able to smuggle social critiques into movies in such a way that the censor cannot point the finger, nor pound the fist. So Berlanga developed an approach that concealed serious points with a jocular tone. If the authorities did not take human life and dignity seriously, neither would Berlanga: the difference is that Berlanga's humour is a tissue-thin veneer covering real despair and anger at the state of the nation, and of humanity.
In his first film, Bienvenido Mr. Marshall (1953), co-written with Juan Antonio Bardem, Berlanga depicted a small town preparing to welcome the Americans, bringing with them the post-war financial relief of the Marshall Plan. Running up debts in order to redecorate their town as a touristic Andalusian destination to appeal to the Americans' perceived sensibilities, the villagers are left high and dry when the much-awaited delegation simply sweeps through town, a cavalcade of limousines, destination elsewhere. At the Cannes Film Festival (Berlanga's were among the few Spanish films of the period to be seen abroad), jury member Edward G. Robinson objected to what he saw as the anti-Americanism of the film's final image: a star-spangled banner floating in a ditch. And while the shot may have appealed to Spanish patriots in government, it's not so much a dig at democracy or capitalism as a symbol of the dashed hopes of impoverished Spaniards, looking in vain for relief from the miseries brought on them by their own state.
By the time of The Executioner, ten years later, Berlanga has grown both bolder and subtler. Eschewing the Sturgesian pace and Ealing comedy whimsy of his first film, he takes a slow and deadly approach. Much harder to see how he got away with this one —
Nino Manfredi (above, left) plays José, whose profession as undertaker has effectively excluded him from the dating game. When he meets Carmen, daughter of the public executioner, his problems seem to be solved: her father's job has likewise put off suitors, so the couple are an ideal match. In the scene above, Berlanga regular José Isbert, as Amadeo the executioner, makes José uncomfortable by unpacking his garrote vil at table, while José sips a coffee that's a touch bitter. To Amadeo, the garrote is the most humane of techniques, since electrocution is too messy and American ("Stick your finger in that light socker and see!"), and the guillotine offends his Christian spirt: "It can't be right to bury a man in pieces." A moral pragmatist, Amadeo dislikes killing but believes that since it's going to be done anyway, it's better that it should be done efficiently, by a skilled professional.
José's problems begin when he sleeps with Carmen, is caught by Amadeo, and forced to marry. His dreams of emigrating to study engineering in Germany are shelved, and he finds himself being groomed to enter the family business. With Amadeo's retirement looming, he finds that his place on the public housing queue is in jeopardy unless strings can be pulled to get José assigned the post of executioner. With Carmen pregnant, José is confronted with the shocking notion that caring for his new family may require the taking of human life, in a discussion Berlanga typically stages over ice cream.
Amadeo, the throaty-voiced old tortoise, is patient and sympathetic as he guides José towards the role of licensed murderer. One of Berlanga's methods for avoiding the censor's knife may be the way the most sinister characters in his film are among the most pleasant. The aggressive busybodies in the background are less dangerous, but add to the comedy of oppression: on a picnic, the people whose radio José and Carmen are dancing to leave, objecting to providing free music to strangers.
Having taken the job, José is assured that he'll never have to kill anybody: most scheduled executions end in commuted sentences, and if things reach the moment of crisis, he can resign at the last moment. In the meantime, he gets a home for his family and a fee for doing nothing, in addition to his earnings as undertaker. (José's day job provides the film with some of its nicest gags, as in the funeral parade at a cacophonous airport, lines of black-clad mourners with their fingers in their ears, being left behind by the baggage cart with the coffin because the driver can't hear José's cries to slow down. The sombre parade of the willfully deaf seems like a defining metaphor.)
By now José is a very nervous man, and the walls continue to close in. The new flat is visited when the tower block is just a skeleton of girders. It seems airy and free. By the time the family move in, of course, the building is finished and the rooms appear much smaller. José becomes a samaritan, intervening in public arguments to make peace, purely because he's terrified that a row might lead to murder, which might lead to his services being required.
A job comes up, in Palma de Mallorca. To Carmen and Amadeo, it's a great opportunity for a holiday trip. To José, seeming more and more like a condemned man himself, it's a nightmare. But good news comes as they arrive at their idyllic seaside hotel: José's client is seriously ill: it's expected that he'll die before José can execute him, and at any rate the state will not carry out the death sentence until he's recovered. José is overjoyed. It looks like this will turn into a relaxing, open-ended vacation for the whole family.
But as José lightheartedly attempts to persuade his wife to smooch at a tourist show in the spectacular Mallorcan grotto (their opportunities for lovemaking are severely restricted in the cramped apartment with Dad and the baby), a messenger arrives, and José is whisked away in a boat to perform his duties upon the condemned man, who's been feeling a bit better: a window of opportunity exists to kill the guy before he relapses. The ferryboat to hell carries our hero across stygian waters...
At the prison, José's cowardice is noted, but his position grants him the same leprotic status as his father-in-law. Coffee is made in the kitchen, but the guard will not take it to him: he gives the cup to a trustee prisoner, who in turn places it pointedly on the table beside José, rather than in his outreached hand. The smell of death is about him.
José, terrified, clings to the fantasy that he can back down at the last moment, but the prison governor is having none of it. If the execution is postponed now, that amounts to the torture of hope for the victim. The only humane course is to strangle him on schedule. As the prisoner is led from his cell, frail but serene, down dark corridors and into a wide, white abstract space, José, fortified with wine stolen from the prisoner's last meal, tries to escape his fate. First the guards, then the governor, and even the priest, are drawn away from the prisoner (his crime, guilt, and even identity essentially irrelevant to the story) and to the executioner, gentling him along towards the waiting door, which will close with lethal finality.
Afterwards, there will be more ice cream, and José, a broken spirit, will be assured that he can still leave the job, but not yet. Now is not the time...
Did this black, icy, itchy comedy, which conjures a sense of deep malaise rather than the release of laughter, come from a personal place? Berlanga's father had been governor of Valencia during the days of the Spanish Republic. When Generalissimo Franco took power, Berlanga protected his parents from reprisals by enlisting in the Blue Division, Spanish volunteers fighting for Nazi Germany against the Russians. Sacrificing his political virtue to protect his family. In such a scenario, as inBerlanga's great film, your loved ones become the jailers, and finally the executioners, of your innocence.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay