Sometimes considered the pinnacle of Luis García Berlanga’s work, The Executioner is a black comedy, a ‘farce’ and now an intriguing document recording aspects of Franco’s Spain in the early 1960s – a period when Spain was beginning to slowly emerge from isolation and grapple with the modernising world of the rest of Western Europe as well as North America.
José Luis (Nino Manfredi) is an undertaker who wants to go to Germany to become a mechanic. One day his job takes him to a prison to pick up the body of an executed prisoner and he reluctantly finds himself having to visit the home (dingy rented rooms) of an executioner on the verge of retirement and his daughter, the voluptuous Carmen. She, like José Luis, has found it difficult to keep a relationship going because of her father’s profession. But true love (and sexual desire) leads to the inevitable pregnancy and the couple must marry. Meanwhile, the executioner has the chance to rent a new apartment because of his official status. But he is due to retire – and will therefore lose the apartment. José Luis, in time-honoured fashion must apply for the job in order to ‘keep it in the family’ – and to keep the new roof over the heads of his wife, child and father-in-law. He prays he will never be needed to ‘perform’ – but the first job arrives and it is in La Palma, Mallorca.
As we noted with earlier films by Luis García Berlanga and Juan Antonio Bardem, Italian neo-realism was an important influence on oppositional Spanish filmmaking in the Franco era. This film is less neo-realist as such and more related to Italian comedies. It features both one of the best-known Italian actors of the commedia all’italiana in the form of Nino Manfredi and one of the great Italian cinematographers, Tonino Delli Colli, famous for his work with Leone, Polanski, Fellini, Louis Malle etc. Perhaps not surprisingly, The Executioner was shown at the Venice Film Festival in 1963 and won the FIPRESCI Prize. The Spanish government was trying to deflect attention from a death sentence pronounced on a communist leader in Spain and they faced the quandary that Berlanga both attracted much-needed artistic prestige to Spanish Cinema, but also embarrassed a government planning a political execution.
Aspects of The Executioner work as farce and that made me think of the later political farces of Dario Fo but it was another Italian connection that struck me quite vigorously. The central plot device whereby José Luis is forced to go after the executioner’s job to get the new apartment sets up a series of interactions with the public servants of Franco’s state. They all deal with the quandary that faces José Luis in an almost perfunctory way. They know he doesn’t want to do the job, but they’ll happily support his application so as to process their own paperwork. This exposure of rigid bureaucracy is similar to the even more fiendish bureaucratic contradictions found in Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Cuban satire Death of a Bureaucrat (1966) in which the problem is not one of finding an executioner but of getting permission to open a coffin because a man has been buried with his worker’s card and without the card his widow can’t claim a pension. Alea had trained in Rome in the 1950s. He’d also probably seen Berlanga’s film at a festival. Another later Italian connection is the Naples episode of De Sica’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963) in which Sophia Loren is a housewife who must be constantly producing children or the city will take away her family apartment. The plight of workers and their families is shared across Italy, Spain and Cuba despite their different political systems. What makes the Spanish case stand out is the much darker undertones that Berlanga suddenly brings to the fore in the closing sequence. The ‘comedy’ of José Luis being gradually persuaded to carry out his executioner duties for the first time is suddenly made shocking by the switch to a long shot of a cavernous large hall with bare white walls at the far end of which is a small black door (see image below). On the other side is the place of execution and José Luis is dragged across the hall and through the door, fortified by coffee and brandy and held by guards, judges and the priest – the symbols of the Francoist regime – kicking and screaming. The condemned man has already been taken through, relatively quietly. As one reviewer put it, Berlanga is able to show that the execution process affects the innocent working man more than the resigned condemned man.
When I started this post I was a little sceptical about the high status of the film but as I’ve had to think about specific scenes and how they fit together I’m beginning to appreciate how it all fits together. There are no superfluous scenes and Berlanga fits a great deal into the roughly 90 minutes running time. The wedding of José Luis and Carmen is, like that in That Happy Couple, a somewhat farcical affair. They are ushered in to follow a high society wedding and quickly married while all the trappings of the high-class wedding are being cleared away, even the candles are being snuffed out so that they are virtually in the dark. In nearly every incident the working class couple are being subjected to forms of humiliation or mockery/disdain/selfishness. But through it all they grin and bear it.
The closing scenes in Mallorca reveal a Spain beginning to ‘open up’ to the outside world with some kind of international event attracting the paparazzi, English tourists in the resorts and the ‘jet set’ in yachts in the harbour. Franco’s regime would carry on for another dozen years until his death and the eventual restoration of parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy. Censorship in the Spanish film industry would remain until the late 1970s but you feel that Berlanga (and Bardem) had managed somehow to show both Spanish audiences and the internal film audience that censorship could be overcome with creativity. Berlanga’s co-writers on this film were Rafael Azcona and Ennio Flaiano. The other two lead actors are Emma Penella as Carmen and José Isbert as her father.
There are numerous offers to watch The Executioner free online. I’ve no idea if any of them are legit. Here’s a good quality 1963 trailer with French subtitles: