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:
The first major collaboration between Juan Antonio Bardem and Luis García Berlanga was this unusual social comedy, made in 1951 but not released until 1953 after the success of the same pairing’s Bienvenido Mister Marshall. The script by Bardem focuses on a young working-class couple, Juan (Fernando Fernán Gómez) and Carmen (Elvira Quintillá). He’s an odd-job man in a film studio and she’s a seamstress and they live in rented rooms. Bardem applies a fractured narrative structure to the story which is at first a little confusing. Eventually, we see how they met and got married and then how Juan’s various schemes to get rich run up against Carmen’s dreaming at the pictures and her love of the lottery and competitions. The scenes in the cinema make direct references to censorship when a woman in the audience cries out “they’ve cut the kiss again”.
Juan works for a ramshackle film production company and the ‘exposure’ of filmmaking techniques in the studio is matched by Juan’s explanations of how films work during the cinema screening with Carmen and other sequences when Juan visits a stage show and tries to engage in conversations with an actor and a crew member operating sets on stage. As well as this kind of ‘deconstruction’, the script satirises Carmen’s small stakes gambling and Juan’s correspondence course which promises ‘Happiness through electronics!’. All of this is light-hearted fun which gently punctures the inflated sense of a glowing future promised by the fascist regime. But the last third of the film ups the stakes when Carmen wins the big prize offered by Florit soap. She and Juan become ‘The Happy Couple’ who are given a chauffeur-driven day touring the top shops and hot-spots of Madrid. The sequence corresponds to some extent to those Hollywood comedies in which the ‘hick from the sticks’ comes to the city and becomes the butt of jokes about etiquette and social conventions. Juan and Carmen aren’t ‘rubes’, but they aren’t familiar with fancy dining and nightclub trickery. Laden down with gifts they finally rebel and give away everything to the vagrants sleeping on park benches. Berlanga’s comedic treatment is much broader in its attacks on the myths of prosperity under Franco than Bardem’s approach in Death of a Cyclist.
Gómez, the actor playing Juan (often the name of the male protagonist in Bardem’s scripts) was a very well-known actor in Spain and he also appears as the bee-keeper in Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), one of the later allegorical films taking aim at the final days of Franco’s regime. As an established actor in 1951 he was one of the supporters of Bardem and Berlanga’s attempts to inject some realism and some criticism into the films. In one sense, Berlanga’s comedy approach with its ‘softening’ of the pain of low wages and unemployment fitted in with what has been termed a ‘gentle and agreeable version’ of realism which became popular in the early 1950s. But this was a form of realism which directly supported the Catholic Church and was largely devoid of political comment. That Happy Couple went much too far in depicting social reality as the basis for comedy and this was why the censors made it more difficult for the film to gain wide distribution. Making sense of this now in the UK is difficult because we don’t have much of a chance of seeing the ‘acceptable’ face of Spanish Cinema in the early 1950s (though the spoof of the historical drama production on which Juan is assigned to catch the Queen who leaps to her death from a balcony is at least one indication). Perhaps it is just as well!
Muerte de un ciclista features in the short retrospective of films by Luis García Berlanga and Juan Antonio Bardem offered at the 28th Leeds International Film Festival. Unfortunately this title appeared to be projected from an American DVD, but even so its status as an important film produced in Spain under the Franco regime was not in doubt.
The screening was introduced (sorry, I missed the speaker’s name – anybody know?) and we were told about Bardem’s difficulties with censorship. Apparently the censors refused his original ending but Bardem tried the strategy of offering multiple choices for an alternative ending, gambling perhaps that the censors would be hoist with their own petard. I’m still thinking about how the final version actually works in terms of ideological struggle.
The film has been discussed as relating to various styles and genres. I was surprised by the extent to which I began to see it as a film noir. Partly I think it is because of the strong performance of Lucia Bosè as a convincing femme fatale – albeit seemingly weak, but in practice deadly in her selfishness. Bosè, though still only 24, was a former Miss Italy and already a star, but was about to move to Spain to marry the leading matador Luis Miguel Dominguín. She has great erotic appeal in the film despite some of the unflattering early 1950s fashions. Her early successes were in neo-realist films and these offer another starting point for classifying Muerte de un ciclista.
The film begins with the incident that provides the title. Lucia Bosè is María, a wealthy married woman driving her lover Juan (Alberto Closas) back from a tryst when her car hits a cyclist on an open road. Juan wants to try to save the dying man, but María hurries him away fearing exposure. The man does indeed die and the lovers realise that they are going to have to live with the fear of exposure. This fear is heightened by the local celebrity gossip who suggests he knows something about María but won’t say what it is. She must try to find out what he knows and Juan goes into the working-class quarters of Madrid attempting to find out if the dead man’s family know anything following the police investigation of the death.
The introduction to the film pointed out that 1955 in Spain was marked by student protests in the universities (and by a meeting of filmmakers at Salamanca University) and such scenes occur in this film since Juan is a junior university teacher – a post he has because his brother-in-law is the university dean. What follows the opening accident is a narrative structured something like a neo-realist film. In an attempt to prevent their guilt becoming known, Juan and María undergo several ‘trials’ and humiliations – much like Antonio in Bicycle Thieves. In the process we learn more about the couple (though mostly more about Juan, primarily a ‘good man’ who has been a moral coward). The real question is what exactly was Bardem trying to say? How did he think his film would be seen as oppositional? Did he win his game of cat and mouse with the censor?
One argument is that the film is mainly concerned with exposing the lack of conscience of the middle classes and the ways in which they can easily ignore the sufferings of the poor – as well as the criticisms of the young. Bardem emphasise this by juxtaposing very different styles, e.g. the neo-realism of Juan’s visit to the home of the cyclist and the expressionist camerawork and low key lighting of scenes in night clubs and when Juan and María meet. Bardem had attended the first Spanish film school started in 1947. This was where he met Berlanga. Bardem was also self-taught in terms of his knowledge of Soviet Cinema and this is evident in one startling cut when the drunken gossiper throws a bottle at wedding and the edit reveals a broken window at the university where Juan is in trouble. The melodrama of Juan’s downfall is heightened by the symbolic shattered glass through which we see him.
Juan’s conscience and his ‘re-discovery’ of himself is at the heart of the narrative. He seems ill at ease with how his life has worked out but also thinks he has disappointed his mother – an important figure in the Spanish wealthy classes. There is a problem with some of the aspects of Juan’s story. He implies that he and María were teenage lovers during the war, but Lucia Bosè is far too young to be a thirty-plus María in 1955 (even if the ‘war’ is defined as including the fascists’ campaign against Republican guerillas that continued after 1939). I’m slightly puzzled by Juan and how Bardem uses him as the protagonist. He seems to be a weak man, easily led by María but not a fascist hero. The argument is that he is in some ways a ‘traitor’ to the class cause because he allows his conscience to trouble him! I’m also surprised the censors allowed the extensive footage of student protest. Overall, I didn’t get the same sense of a clear satire or anti-fascist allegory that I’ve found in the work of Carlos Saura. Rob Stone in his 2002 book on Spanish Cinema (Longman) suggests that Bardem’s juxtaposition of styles stripped away the sentimentality of neo-realism and allowed it to strengthen the impact of the melodrama (which in a Hollywood film would be purely ‘personal’ in its use of moral or social problems but which here points to the moral bankruptcy of a social class)(pp 48-9). Stone also points towards the use of deep focus (a feature of the long shot/long take approach in Rossellini’s neo-realist films) which enables Bardem to focus on Juan, but also to show the world around him – a world suffering under the impact of fascism.
I guess this discussion of melodrama points us towards Sirk and Fassbinder and their uses of melodrama as a means of subversion. I think I’d need another viewing to fully take on board Stone’s argument but I was certainly impressed by the melodrama/noir that is Muerte de un ciclista.
A detailed analysis of the film by Marsha Kinder (which expands Stone’s analysis) is available on the Criterion website.