The past year has been a rather tragic one when it comes to classic cinema: Jean Simmons died in January; Lena Horne passed on in May, and then, just a little over a month back, Tony Curtis died. And, about a week ago, I got an e-mail from blog reader and friend Bawa to say that Spanish director Luis García Berlanga had died. Berlanga, the audacious film maker about whom Franco is supposed to have said, “Berlanga is not a Communist; he is worse than a Communist, he is a bad Spaniard.” Berlanga, creator of the superb Bienvenido, Mister Marshall!, which Bawa gave to me and helped spark off an enthusiasm for the work of this immensely talented film maker. Berlanga, who with this film derided capital punishment and made himself so unpopular with the Spanish government that they tried to stop the screening of El Verdugo at the Venice Film Festival… RIP.
El Verdugo (The Executioner, also known as Not on Your Life) does not have the laugh-out loud funniness of Beinvenido, Mister Marshall! It is funny, but in a more subtle, subdued sort of way. And the humour – unsurprising, considering that the two main characters are an executioner and an undertaker respectively – is dark.
For instance, there’s this scene where the undertaker visits the executioner at home and notices a portrait photograph on the wall. That’s one of the men I executed, explains his host. On the wall opposite are other similar photos. The undertaker’s gaze automatically travels to them. There’s an unspoken question here, and the executioner says “No, those are just my relatives.”
But. To rewind. In Madrid, the old executioner, Amadeo (José Isbert, who also played the delightful mayor in Bienvenido, Mister Marshall!) is on assignment at the jail when he first meets the young undertaker, José Luis Rodríguez (Nino Manfredi). José Luis is somewhat wary of Amadeo; there is something pretty gruesome about a man who makes a living by killing other people, after all. But José Luis’s partner, all jovial and friendly (and also perhaps a bit morbidly curious about Amadeo’s work?) offers the old man a lift home in the undertakers’ van after the job is done. Amadeo accepts.
When they drop Amadeo off, he forgets his case in their van. José Luis is obliged to go after him to return the case. His visit to Amadeo’s poky little home results in José Luis meeting Amadeo’s daughter Carmen (Emma Penella). Carmen offers José Luis a cup of coffee; Amadeo insists that yes, their guest must stay for coffee; – and poof! there’s a definite whiff of chemistry in the air.
Now that we’ve been given a glimpse of Amadeo’s home, we also get to see José Luis’s home, which is nothing to be envied. He lives in the house (well, tiny hovel, actually) of his brother Antonio (José Luis López Vázquez) who works as a tailor. Antonio has a shrewish wife (who’s constantly nagging José Luis) and a brood of children, one of whom shares José Luis’s bed because there’s no space anywhere else.
So José Luis isn’t exactly wallowing in comfort. But after his getting to know Amadeo (and more importantly, Carmen) life begins to look up. The two undertakers soon become good friends with the executioner and his daughter, going off on picnics together…
and, unknown to Amadeo, José Luis and Carmen are soon having an affair. She admits to him that she’s never been able to hold the interest of any man because the men steer clear of her when they find out her father’s an executioner. He confides that no woman wants to marry him because he’s an undertaker.
In the midst of all these confidences, Amadeo unexpectedly comes home and makes the shocking discovery that José Luis has been sleeping with Carmen. José Luis tries to pacify the old man and even says (egged on by Carmen) that he would like to marry her. But Amadeo is too indignant and angry to listen. But it emerges, a few days down the line, that Carmen is pregnant. José Luis prevaricates; this job as an undertaker is a bummer and his greatest ambition has long been to go to Germany and train to be a mechanic. Maybe he’ll do that, and will send for Carmen once he’s settled in.
All of that comes to nothing, and they end up getting married. [The wedding scene is delicious. A large and ostentatious wedding has preceded José Luis and Carmen’s relatively low-key wedding, and even as our hero and heroine are getting hitched, the deacons and choir boys are busy setting the church to order: rolling up the carpet, removing the prayer cushions, snuffing out the candles. The candles next to the priest and the young couple are snuffed out one by one, until only one is left, offering a meagre light, by which the priest is straining to read the service. And all of them – José Luis, Carmen, Amadeo, their handful of relatives and friends – end up shuffling along, clustering around that one burning candle too.]
Anyway, now that they’re man and wife, they have to find a place to stay. What with things being so cramped in Antonio’s house, there’s no chance of Carmen going to live there; it’ll make a lot more sense for José Luis to move in with Carmen and Amadeo. Fortunately for all of them, Amadeo is to get a flat (thanks to his 40 years of service as an executioner), and it’s a lovely flat, with a fine view, three bedrooms, a comfortable balcony, a lift… and contenders who insist that this is their flat.
Amadeo ends up having to go to the government office to enquire into the allocation of his flat. Here, some shovelling through the paperwork, and a startling fact emerges: Amadeo, since he’s going to retire soon, is not entitled to a flat. The old man, undaunted, tries another tack: he has his daughter to support, he needs the flat. The official behind the desk (looking at Carmen’s big belly) points out that only single offspring can be considered dependants – to which Amadeo, quickly hustling José Luis out of the way – says that oh, she’s single all the right, the problem is that she’s single, and now this.
But none of this works. Amadeo, since he’s retiring, cannot get the flat. The next best solution? (And this is Amadeo’s idea): José Luis should apply for a job as an executioner. He becomes an executioner, he’ll be able to get a flat and they can all live in comfort.
The problem is that José Luis cannot stomach the idea of having to cold-bloodedly kill people for a living. Amadeo can pull strings, can talk to people (including a famous author of grisly books about the executioner’s trade), can plead and bully and use emotional blackmail – but will José Luis agree?
He does, after being browbeaten, coaxed and assured that most criminals get pardoned and don’t end up being executed. But can that assurance really hold true for all of José Luis’s career?
I watched El Verdugo in two sittings, just over an hour on one night, and the remaining 15-odd minutes the next night. When my husband asked me, after the first instalment, what the film was like, I said, “Not as funny as Beinvenido, Mister Marshall!, but okay, humorous enough. I like it.” And I did: this was a sweet, part-romantic, part-fun film about a man, his small family and his job. His job, mind you. Not his JOB, as it suddenly became in that last 15 minutes of the film. It was almost as if I was watching a completely different film: those few minutes turned out to be vastly darker and more disturbing (though with still a dark humour tingeing them) than the rest of the film.
That, I think, is what makes El Verdugo such a fine example of Berlanga’s genius. On the surface, the film beguiles you with the frothy, funny, sometimes silly vignettes of life for a lower-middle class family, coping with the problems of everyday life, celebrating the little triumphs and happinesses of everyday life too, the love for a spouse and the pride in one’s cute offspring… and then suddenly, Berlanga turns it on its head. There is something grotesquely, satirically funny in the sight of an executioner so reluctant to execute that he (more than the condemned man) has to be supported and cajoled and taken to the garotte. But that humour leaves a bitter taste in one’s mouth. Is this a film about one man’s personal joys and sorrows and fears, or is this more? Is it not about the flippancy with which human lives are treated by the state, even while society itself makes a big show about the sanctity of human life? Why is the executioner so important to law enforcement, but despised by just about everybody, both within the infrastructure of which he’s a part, and outside? Why this hypocrisy?
What I liked about this film:
Berlanga’s deft handling of the subject matter. As I mentioned, El Verdugo starts off being light and reveals, only at the very end (or so it seemed to me!) its deepest truth. There are, when I look back on the film as a whole, little indications now and then of what Berlanga is saying beneath all that humour – but the deeply disturbing finale still came as a shock. Very well made: well scripted, acted and directed, and unforgettable.
What I didn’t like:
Let me begin by saying that this doesn’t mean that there’s actually anything wrong with El Verdugo; it’s just a result of my not knowing Spanish and therefore having to depend upon subtitles. Some scenes in the film consist of a number of people talking simultaneously, very fast and often at cross-purposes. When that means having to read something like four or five lines of subtitles at a time, it can get very frustrating; I ended up missing out on some text and had to go back to see what that was all about; and of course I was so busy reading the subtitles, I missed out on the details of what was happening onscreen.
But I guess that could be resolved by rewatching those scenes. I wouldn’t boycott El Verdugo for that; it’s too good a film.