A while back, a discussion on one of my posts meandered its way into films that weren’t English or Hindi—basically, films I don’t generally watch, mainly because they’re difficult to get hold of. One of my readers, Bawa, mentioned Spanish cinema of the 50’s and 60’s, even taking the trouble of listing some of the classics. And as if that wasn’t generous enough, she went to the extent of searching high and low in Bilbao to find some of these films, with English subtitles, for me. She eventually found one, Beinvenido, Mister Marshall! (Welcome, Mister Marshall!) and gifted it to me while on a trip to India. I was, obviously, very grateful.
Having watched the film—an unforgettably heart-warming and funny take on rural Spain in the mid 20th century—I’m feeling even more blessed that I have readers such as this. Thank you, Bawa.
Villar del Río is a small and sleepy town in the Spanish countryside. It has its farmers and its gossipy spinsters, its town crier and its barber. And its fountain, old but with good fresh water, which stands in the centre of the town square, overlooked by the Town Hall. The Town Hall has, on its weatherbeaten façade, a clock that’s pretty much a reflection of Villar del Río itself: it stopped sometime in the distant past, and hasn’t moved since.
Not that Villar del Río is backward. It’s just quiet and slightly old-fashioned and sweet. The local priest, Don Cosme (Luis Péréz de León) isn’t exactly quiet and sweet, but he’s old-fashioned, all right, and pretty staunch in his beliefs.
So is the resident grandee, Don Luis (Alberto Romea) who may be poverty-stricken but hasn’t lost any of the hauteur of his noble ancestors.
Most influential of the lot is Don Pablo (José Isbert), who owns the local bus, various enterprises in Villar del Río’s narrow lanes, and is the Mayor. So what if he’s quite hard of hearing and can’t manage without his hearing aid.
This, therefore, is Villar del Río—and its fortunes are destined for an upswing, because the local barroom/restaurant/casino/cabaret has just acquired a new attraction. The star of Andalusian song, the beautiful Carmen Vargas (Lolita Sevilla) has just arrived, and nearly every male in town—excluding, of course, the disapproving Don Cosme—is enamoured by her legs, her waist, her voice, her charm… oh, everything.
With Carmen Vargas has come her street-smart mentor, manager and chaperone, Manolo (Manolo Morán). Manolo knows what’s what, and soon after their arrival, has his protégé installed well and proper as Villar del Río’s biggest draw.
Unfortunately for Villar del Río, what actually gets drawn to the little town is the powerful Delegate General (José Franco), who comes swooping into town one day with four suit-clad and efficient aides in tow. Don Pablo and company are panic-stricken and inclined to believe that this is an attempt to assess the ability of the town to pay its taxes. Everybody goes into action and puts on a penurious front—with poultry quickly driven into hiding and everybody reciting their woes about the poor crop.
The Delegate General, to Don Pablo’s surprise (and relief) has come not to chastise Villar del Río, but to give it some very welcome news. The Americans—those rich people with their plentiful dollars—are assisting in a post-war reconstruction of Europe (the European Recovery Program, more commonly known as the Marshall Plan). France has already been blessed with America’s bounty, and it’s now Spain’s turn. Representatives of the Marshall Plan will shortly be driving through the countryside, visiting the towns and bestowing their largesse. Villar del Río will be on the route.
But there’s another side to the coin, quite literally. The Americans aren’t going to be impressed with a dull little town like this. And if the Americans aren’t impressed, why will they bother to give anything to Villar del Río?
The solution, says the Delegate General to Don Pablo, is for the town to clean up its act. Give the Americans something to remember, a feast for the senses that’ll dazzle them.
When the Delegate General and his servitors have pushed off, Don Pablo informs the town. They get down to work, of course. Eloisa (Elvira Quintillá), the spinster schoolteacher (whom, we are informed, can multiply as well as anybody) teaches the townfolk about America—its geography, its agriculture, its industry…
…And is somewhat rudely interrupted by the indignant Don Cosme, who tells them how many Americans are unbelievers destined for hellfire. In his opinion, all this enthusiasm for buttering up the Americans is worthless. What the Americans need is conversion to the true faith, not a fiesta.
Equally opposed to the idea of bowing and scraping to the Americans is Don Luis, who comes from a long line of conquistadors who made it to America, only to end up being eaten by cannibalistic Indians. No; he won’t cater to Indians or Americans or whatever.
The Town Council meets, and various suggestions are put forward to make Villar del Río more appealing: bunting must be hung; Carmen Vargas must dance and sing and show off her legs; a triumphal arch should be built; illumination must be fitted into the fountain so that the spray of water shines red and blue and green at night.
All these suggestions are shot down by someone or the other, and the council can’t come up with anything that’s even vaguely appealing.
So Villar del Río plods on, cleaning up a bit, tuning up a bit and making some perfunctory plans for greeting the Americans.
Until, that is, another officer turns up from the Delegate General and gives Don Pablo a piece of his mind. Other towns in the vicinity are putting up floral arches and whatnot; what will dull little Villar del Río do?
Don Pablo, faced with the awful thought that the largesse may pass his town by, flounders about looking for a solution. And he finds it, in the swaggering and self-confident form of Manolo, who has lived in Boston for 15 years and knows what the Americans want. Give me the contract, says he, and I will turn Villar del Río into the perfect town that the Americans will love.
Don Pablo and his council (or most people on the council, since Don Cosme and Don Luis are still not keen on this business) agree. Manolo will be in charge of Villar del Río’s makeover.
What does Manolo do? How does he change a somnolent and mundane village—which is really what Villar del Río is, even though it likes to think of itself as a town—into something the Americans will be tempted to shower wealth upon? How do the people of the village cope? What do they think of all of this?
And most importantly, what do the Americans think of it all?
Till Bawa told me about Beinvenido, Mister Marshall!, I’d not even heard of it. Today, I’d list it among the most enjoyable films I’ve ever seen. Brilliant.
What I liked about this film:
The wonderful way in which it blends humour with an appreciation of humanity. It’s hilarious, true; but it also reflects a warm understanding of human nature, of the universal habit of assigning stereotypes to everybody and everything, of the ability to dream and build castles in the air; and of the resilience of those dreams. Beinvenido Mister Marshall! actually reminded me a lot of Giovanni Guareschi’s superb novels of the Italian priest, Don Camillo, and his little village in the Po Valley. If you look closely, there’s more than just humour here: there’s also a sensitivity that’s touching and sweet. And so very global: Villar del Río could have been any quiet village in any corner of the world, suddenly faced with the chance of becoming rich…
The characters are superb, well etched, quirky, likeable, and so very well enacted. José Isbert as the deaf Don Pablo, with his oh-so-delightful dreams which he keeps hidden under wraps, is easily my favourite.
The music. Even though only one of the songs—the one about the Americans coming like Santa Claus and showering gifts on Villar del Río—was subtitled (and had delightful lyrics), even the other songs were good to listen to, so what if I didn’t understand a word.
Watch it for yourself; it’s a beautiful, funny, wonderful film. Which was, thankfully enough, well acknowledged: the director, Luis García Berlanga, won the International Prize at Cannes for Beinvenido Mister Marshall!
What I didn’t like:
Yes, I know I have this section here for each post. But for this film (despite mulling over it a lot), I couldn’t find anything to write.
Which, I think, says a lot.