The highest debut placement within last December's update of the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? list of 1000 greatest films was this corrosively black comedy by Luis Garcia Berlanga, the long-suffering subversive of Spain's Franco regime. A young undertaker whose job leaves him unloved by the ladies takes interest in the equally forlorn daughter of a government executioner. A series of mild shocks to his humdrum existence nudge him into marriage, parenthood, the real estate rat race, and the eventual assumption of his father-in-law's socially despised profession, a fate into which he is literally dragged kicking and screaming. Unrelenting in its laughing fixation on death and people's discomfort with it, Berlanga's masterpiece is as damning as Bertolucci's The Conformist (TSPDT #65) in its view of life under fascism, where the complicity and compromise of everday citizens perpetuate a society's alienation from the horrors it perpetrates. This vision is brought forth not only with a razor sharp script by Berlanga and Rafael Azcona, but by Berlanga's use of the frame: whether in cavernously deep wide shots or claustrophobic interiors, people frequently bump into each other, distracted in their petty self-interests, the affably hapless protagonist moreso than anyone. The film also tweaks contemporary auteurs Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, linking the bourgeois self-absorption of their milieu to an ignorance of working-class entrapment, a condition that Berlanga, with unsentimental starkness and wit, brings sharply into view.
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El verdugo was the eighth feature film written and directed by Luis García Berlanga in collaboration with his longtime associate, Rafael Azcona. The story pivots upon the fate of a pleasant, if somewhat timid, young undertaker whose dream is to go to Germany and become a mechanic. This dream is thwarted when he happens to meet the executioner in a prison where both of them are plying their trade. In spite of the aversion that the young man (and everyone else) feels for the executioner, he not only ends up marrying the executioner's daughter, but even takes over his father-in-law's business.
El verdugo is a farce or domestic comedy filled with macabre touches and scenes of black humor in which the taboos associated with death are transgressed. Even the actual mode of execution is the subject of morbid jokes as the executioner, who garrots his victims, measures the neck size of his future son-in-law. The film is punctuated with these bits of gallows humor as well as with comic reversals that take the audience by surprise. A particularly fine example occurs at the end of the movie when the young executioner is carried kicking and screaming like the victim into the prison where he will perform his first execution. El verdugo shows that the biting black humor that we have come to associate with Buñuel is, in more general terms, a Spanish characteristic.
Berlanga's irreverent treatment of death is symptomatic of a tendency found in all of his movies—to poke fun at pomposity and pretensions, and to deflate generally accepted values and beliefs. At the same time that El verdugo is highly entertaining, it also has a message that was vaguely subversive in Franco's Spain in the early 1960s. In one sense, the movie is about two outcasts, the undertaker and the executioner's daughter, both of whom are avoided by everyone. When they join together, it is with the hope of having a better life. But as Berlanga demonstrates, these hopes cannot be realized. Like other Berlanga protagonists, the undertaker becomes caught up in a destiny which he did not choose. He is a victim of innocent concessions made along the way that ultimately lead him to be sentenced to his fate of becoming the executioner. He is the true victim, the one who is strangled in a web of circumstances beyond his control, caught up in the system of justice and retribution that is all encompassing. In the context of Franco's Spain, the ideological dimensions of this message are clear. As the executioner tells his son-in-law, where there's a law, someone has to enforce it; someone has to do the dirty work. Perhaps that was Berlanga's way of saying that in a dictatorial regime, whether they are willing or not, men are coerced into aiding and abetting the status quo.
—Katherine Singer Kóvacs, Film Reference.com
El verdugo has always been regarded as part of the canon of Spanish cinema. Even with some fifteen minutes of cuts from the finished version (some of which have now been reinstated), there is a certain degree of consensus about Luis Garcia Berlanga's masterpiece as a key anti-Franco film, that in spite of all difficulties managed to bypass the censor and express a critique of certain aspects of the regime. The cuts on the shooting script, as stated in the official report of the censors, have surprisingly little effect on the film's central idea. In particular, the censors showed prudish concern for the presence of women in the two execution scenes; the noise of the executioner's tool inside his briefcase was discouraged, as was the showing of the actual instrument; they also cut the erotic relationship between the protagonist and the executioner's daughter; and a rehearsal before the execution during which prison guards made jokes using the executioner's tools. All of these elements might have added some edge to Rafael Azcona and Berlanga's satire, but the story of a man trapped in the position of having to murder in order to keep a certain standard of living remains clear. Even if the traditional interpretation of the film as a statement against the death penalty (and against Franco, who was internationally known as 'the executioner' at the time) is the key to the film's reputation, it is the more general narrative of everyday compromises and comfort undersigned by death that brings forth its contemporary relevance.
The cuts show that the censors missed the most unsettling aspects of the script, but the reaction of politicians when faced with the finished film remains an illustration of the regime's paranoia. They did find the film provocative (after all, it was a film by Berlanga, a man who was regarded by Generalisimo Franco himself as 'worse than a communist; a bad Spaniard'), but their verdict on where provocation lay narratively was as wide off the mark as the censors'. Paradoxically, it was the ensuing scandal that focused attention on the film. One could suggest that if Berlanga, co-writer Azcona and 'assistant director' (who actually played a role as line producer and had a key role in its inception) Ricardo Munoz Suay are responsible for the film itself, these functionaries and censors are responsible for the myth.
- Alberto Mira, from The Cinema of Spain and Portugal, Wallflower Press, 2005, pages 109-117
El verdugo, arguably his finest film, struck at the very heart of the repressive Francoist state. El verdugo tells the story of a man who, on marrying the daughter of the state executioner, is condemned to inherit his father-in-law's job. This is a story that interrogates and unveils the anatomy of Spanish society at an historical turning point. The film, for example, unpicks the reality of the country's 1960s tourist boom that would, on the one hand, help consolidate the revived fortunes of the Spanish economy, while on the other, would bring with it the unwanted 'foreign' values of liberalism and sexual freedom.
El verdugo provoked a major controversy. Selected to compete at the Venice Film Festival, the Spanish government fought strenuously to prevent its screening. By pure coincidence, the regime had attracted international attention and outrage earlier the same year by executing three of its political opponents: Communist Party member Julián Grimau and anarchists Francisco Granados Mata and Joaquín Delgado Martínez. Ironically, but very typically of the critical reception of Berlanga's work, there was no consensus of opinion as to how to approach El verdugo. At Venice (where it was acclaimed and awarded the critics prize) Italian anarchists saw it as an apology for the Francoist state. On the other hand, the Spanish ambassador to Italy denounced the film as a slur on the Spanish nation and Franco himself was widely reported as saying “Berlanga is not a Communist, he is worse than a Communist, he is a bad Spaniard.”
About Luis Garcia Berlanga
Biography on the Prince Asturias Foundation website commemorating Berlanga's 1986 Arts Award.
Luis García Berlanga spearheaded the dramatic transformation that Spanish cinema underwent in the 1950s and early 1960s. In spite of the harsh censorship that hallmarked Francisco Franco's military and Catholic-inspired regime, Berlanga succeeded in directing a series of films that undermined the mores of the Dictatorship and established him as the most important Spanish film director of his generation. From his first film in 1951 to his final movie París-Timbuctú (1999), which heralded his retirement, Berlanga has proved a consistent thorn in the side of authority, both during the Dictatorship and throughout the democratic period that followed the death of Franco in 1975. While his particular version of 'the popular' is undeniably subversive, such subversion has proved politically problematic. Claimed, at times, by both the Left and the Right, he has never easily fitted in to either generic or ideological categories.
- Steven Marsh, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Bio
Luis Garcia Berlanga's films were often subtle satires that criticized the Spanish government under Franco, the strong religious fervor popular in Spain at the time, and the United States' influence in Spain. In one of his early films, "Bienvenido, Mr.Marshall!" a small village prepares for the arrival of the Marshall Commissioners, on the expectation that they will be given large amounts of money. In an effort to do so they go about trying to make themselves seem as Spanish as possible--learning the Flamenco and building a bullfighting ring among other things. In the end, the Marshall commissioners pass by the village without stopping. In another film, "Los Juevos, milagro" (Every Thursday, a Miracle), Berlanga satirizes the Spanish craze for religion and miracle making. In this film a spa town, in order to attract visitors, invents a reappearance of St.Dimas. The 1961 film "Seat a Poor Person at Your Table" is about a rich family who invites the poor to dinner on Christmas eve. This film makes a comment on bourgeois hypocrisy. In "El Verdugo" (The Executioner), a 1963 film which was later voted the best Spanish film by Spanish critics, is about a poor man who is forced to become an executioner and has to execute a convict against his own free will.
The first censorship Berlanga faced was actually from Americans. At the Cannes Film Festival the publicity for the film "Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall" included handing out dollar bills in which George Washington's face was replaced with the face of the main character in the play. The president of the jury at Cannes was Edward G. Robinson, an American who had recently been pursued by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and he was trying to make himself out to be a patriot. He condemned the movie as anti-American. "Los Jueves, milagro" was first rejected by the Church representative on the censorship junta. Berlanga made some changes, but they were not enough to satisfy the censors. A final scene was added which suggested the whole story had been a dream and with this addition the movie was finally passed. In 1961 censors insisted that Berlanga change the title of "Seat a Poor Person at Your Table" to "Placido", because they were sensitive to any reference of Spanish poverty. "El Verdugo" was the final straw. After the making of that movie Berlanga was called unpatriotic and forced to work abroad.
Review of Berlanga Retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center by Elliot Stein for the Village Voice
In many movies he has exposed the pitfalls of Spanish society and satirized those institutions or individuals who take themselves too seriously, often using black humor to deflate their pretentions. Berlanga's sympathies are with the underdogs of whatever social class, those who are victims of fate, institutions, or other forces they cannot control. In a number of his films we follow the efforts of an individual who wants to achieve something or attain some goal, struggles to do so, and in the end is defeated, ending up in the same or in a worse situation than before. This unfortunate outcome reflects Berlanga's pessimism about a society in which the individual is powerless and in danger of being devoured. There are no winners in Berlanga's movies; all of the victories are Pyrrhic. But never one to deliver messages or lessons, Berlanga expresses his pessimistic viewpoint with such verve, vitality and humor that audiences leave the theatre elated with the spontaneity and inventiveness of his films.
Berlanga prefers working with groups of characters rather than concentrating on the fate of a single protagonist. Rarely does one individual dominate the action. Usually we move from one person to the next so that our point of view on the action is constantly shifting. This approach is supported by Berlanga's distinctive camera style. He tends to use very long takes in which the camera surreptitiously follows the movement of the characters, the shot lasting as long as the sequence. (In Patrimonio nacional there are some takes that last six or seven minutes.) These sequences are not, however, the carefully arranged and choreographed efforts of a Jancsó. As Berlanga explains it, until he begins shooting he has no specific setup in mind: "What I do is organize the actors' movements and then tell the cameraman how to follow them. When we bump into some obstacle, we stop shooting." In shooting the often feverish activities of his characters in this way, Berlanga gives a fluid, spontaneous feeling to his films. His predilection for these shots expresses what Berlanga calls his "god complex"—his desire to be everywhere at once and to express the totality of any scene.
In his scrutiny of contemporary Spanish life, Berlanga is also attached to much older Spanish literary and cultural traditions, most notably to that of the picaresque novel, in which a pícaro or rogue is thrust out into the world and forced to fend for himself. At the bottom of the social heap, the pícaro is afforded "a worm's eye view" of society and learns to be tricky in order to survive. The pícaro keeps hoping and waiting for a miracle, a sudden change in fate that will change his or her fortune in one stroke. Berlanga's pícaros, whether they be naive like Plácido (Plácido) or noble like the Marquis of Leguineche (Patrimonio nacional), share the same hopes and tenacious desire to survive. These characters, like Berlanga himself, are deeply attached to Spanish cultural traditions. In fact, one might even consider Berlanga to be a sort of picaresque hero who managed to survive the vagaries of the Franco regime and its system of censorship. A popular director since Welcome Mr. Marshall!, Berlanga has gone on to even greater success since Franco's death with La escopeta nacional, a satiric look at a hunting party of Spain's notables during the Franco regime. In this irreverent and amusing comedy and in its two sequels, Berlanga introduced himself and his vision of his country to a new generation of Spaniards.
—Katherine Singer Kovács, Film Reference.com