There aren’t many films called El Cochecito. That’s the Spanish title. In English it goes by the title The Wheelchair. There aren’t many films with that title either. A wheelchair is not aspirational, it’s not something people covet. (As for The Little Coach, which the film sometimes flies by, no one even knows what that is.) But the main character in El Cochecito really does aspire to own one, which makes him an unusual character. But then this is a very unusual film.
Rather than confinement, the wheelchair seems to Anselmo Proharán to offer freedom, escape. He’s a retired man, a somebody back in the day, a widower who now lives with his brother’s family in a big apartment in Madrid. In spite of his dependency on the grace of his offspring, he has his own life and his own cronies, one of whom one day comes into possession of a motorised wheelchair, which Lucas (Jose Lepe) needs on account of his non-working legs. Lucas has to be lifted into this device but once he’s in it, off he can tootle. Madrid is suddenly his oyster and the three-wheeled vehicle fitted with a tiny motorbike engine is life-changing.
Anselmo has no problems with his legs. In fact he’s in great shape for an old guy. But seeing Lucas being able to dash about, suddenly he wants one of these wheelchairs too. What starts out as an interest soon grows into a desire and finally an obsession, until Anselmo is faking illness, selling off his dead wife’s jewellery and falling out with his son, who is a professional man with no time for this sort of nonsense. “A happy, tight-knit family disrupted by an old old man, an old lunatic,” he will later explode, after Anselmo’s incessant craving has become pathological.
A strange comedy of foibles plays out, with the expressive hangdog features of José Isbert working their magic in the role of Anselmo, while director Marco Ferreri drives this lean beast forward as if everything you are seeing is a natural everyday event. Ferreri would later be described as a Spanish New Wave director but here he’s more in thrall to British kitchen sinkers like Look Back in Anger or Room at the Top. There’s a pitiless aspect to the comedy and the prevailing idea is that Anselmo is a silly man for expecting materialist baubles to have magical properties.
A strange director, Ferreri is worth more than a passing nod. An Italian who made his first few films in Spain (this was the last), his most famous film is La Grande Bouffe, the one where men meet up one weekend to eat themselves to death, and he also made 1981’s Tale of Ordinary Madness, a passable adaptation of a Charles Bukowski book, a tough task since Bukowski is a prose stylist with a voice that struggles when not on the page.
Here Ferreri’s camera is agile and keeps moving even when in the tight confines of the apartment Anselmo shares with his son and family. The film is clearly made at speed and on a tight budget. When someone fluffs a line, or the shadow of the camera appears on the wall, everyone just keeps going.
There are a lot of motorised wheelchairs in this film, and the people in them are on the whole not portrayed as unfortunates. Among them are a millionaire’s son, a pretty young woman, a handsome young man. They all hang out together, go places, have races, have fun. They’re a fun-loving gang. Wheelchair users as an aspirational group. You can understand why Anselmo might want to join them.
It’s also a portrait of a way of life in the process of being disrupted – women do the drudge domestic work, families huddle tightly together in formations that only work because everyone knows their place and their role. “Old folks are like children, you mustn’t indulge them,” a doctor intones at one point. There aren’t many films about old people making a dash for freedom either. El Cochecito is unusual in that respect too.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023