No film has given me, an Englishman, a better insight into the dichotomy of being Spanish under Franco during the “swinging sixties” than this black comedy of manners that’s light and gentle in tone, but as serious as films can be. Italian actor Nino Manfredi plays José Luis Rodríguez, a soft-hearted young undertaker (an unlikely combination perhaps) whose casual dalliance with Carmen (Emma Penella), the daughter of soon-to-retire state executioner Amadeo (José Isbert), makes her pregnant and forces José to pretend to enter her father’s profession so that they can retain the apartment that comes with it.
In other words, José Luis behaves exactly like the sexually liberated heroes in the Bergman and Antonioni films other Europeans were watching in the sixties (and which are referenced in passing by two cool youngsters in the film), but which were banned in Spain at the time. The consequences for José Luis, however, are not a dose of existential angst and a turbulent affair so much as a shotgun marriage and the endless small compromises the insistently cajoling Amadeo –perfectly characterised by the aged Isbert as a blithely impassive froglike professional killer– persuades him to make that lead him to play his own full part in an implacably lethal bureaucracy.
Despite its grim subject, and doleful opening scenes in a prison where a garrotting has just taken place, the film plays out much of its story against a festive air. Crowd scenes, of which there are many, show foreign tourists and the rich elite having fun in the sunshine while Luis gets drawn ever further into his funereal dilemma, eventually being ordered to Majorca, where the film’s extraordinarily brilliant closing scenes (which I will not spoil by describing them here) take place. Music is playing even when circumstances are depressing: flamenco singing over the prison scenes, New Orleans jazz being practiced while funeral flowers are being assembled. And in one exquisite set-piece, a romantic orchestral moment in a sea cave son et lumiére is interrupted by a boatful of civil guards in their tricorn hats calling on a megaphone for José Luis to make himself known. All this makes for a poignant, biting satire of a kind that has to be note perfect and the film never fumbles a single detail.
I’m told that the director Luis García Berlanga is revered in Spain –Pedro Almodóvar tells us so on a DVD extra here that he is at least the equal of Luis Buñuel, and that The Executioner is Spain’s greatest film– but Berlanga does not have a big international reputation. Commentators blame this on Berlanga’s propensity for crowd scenes in which everyone talks at once, something that’s impossible to reflect through subtitles. I myself would guess that his relative obscurity may be as much to do with his films being harder to export at the time because the situation of Spain was so different from the rest of Europe (nonetheless, the film was shown in Venice ’63). Whatever the reason, this re-release of The Executioner deserves to be taken to heart by today’s youth, and to bring Berlanga’s films success with a wider international audience, especially in the USA, where I suspect the film will take on sad new meanings in the coming months.