film fatales #127: meshes of the afternoon (maya deren & alexander hammid, 1943)
geezer cinema: west side story (steven spielberg, 2021)

el verdugo (luis garcía berlanga, 1963)

I'm embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of Berlanga, much less seen one of his movies, although in this clip, Pedro Almodóvar says all of Spanish cinema derives from Berlanga and Luis Buñuel.

El Verdugo (The Executioner) is his most renowned film (#265 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time). It's an often charming movie that gradually becomes unsettling, as the protagonist finds he has become the executioner, a job he never wanted. While El Verdugo is a comedy for the most part, it's not laugh-out-loud. The humor lies in the way our hero finds himself ensnared in a position he wants to avoid, and for most of the picture, it's enjoyable to see his options lessen. But at some point, he realizes, and we in the audience realize, that he really is going to become an executioner.

There clearly are subtle references to life in Spain under Franco, references that went over my head. Berlanga pokes fun at the complications of bureaucracy, but whatever is specific to Franco's Spain, I missed. (It suffered from censors' cuts.) Because of the lack of understanding regarding the social context, I was left with the characters, and they brought plenty of enjoyment on their own, albeit at their expense (as we watch them suffer).

The film was a Spanish-Italian production, with Italian actor Nino Manfredi as José Luis, the undertaker's assistant who falls into the executioner's job. The primary Spanish actors, Emma Penella and José Isbert, had long careers in Spanish film, although again, they were new to me.

The final scenes, wherein the new executioner has his first assignment, are cleverly staged and very disturbing, because while José Luis is in some ways unlikeable, Berlanga takes us deep enough into José Luis' predicament that we feel for him. It's masterful.


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