It’s only towards the end of The Executioner (El Verdugo) that it becomes really obvious what writer/director Luis García Berlanga is up to. Released in 1963 during the Franco era in Spain, when to criticise the regime was to court disaster, it looks to all intents and purposes like a light comedy, maybe like Italian ones starring Marcello Mastroianni, or British ones featuring Leslie Phillips, or the ones Billy Wilder was still reliably turning out in the USA.
It focuses on José Luis (Nino Manfredi) a young undertaker in Spain who’d rather be an engineer in Germany, who we meet at a prison where he’s about to take delivery of a body recently garrotted to death by Amadeo (José Isbert), an ageing executioner. José Luis is sickened by the whole idea of what’s going on and can barely stand being near the garrulous old guy, who is full of stories about men who went proudly to their deaths, and how the young people nowadays aren’t made of the same sort of stuff, and how the garrotte is more civilised than the guillotine or the electric chair, and so on.
In a series of developments which Berlanga calls “the invisible traps that society sets up for us”, but which are just as easily described as the contortions all writers of light comedies put their characters through for our amusement, José Luis ends up first marrying the executioner’s daughter, Carmen, then living with both her and the old man before finally being forced into taking over his job, to ensure that his family keep their government appointed apartment.
There is some logic to some of this – an undertaker and an executioner’s daughter are a neat fit, since they find it hard to meet other people – but not all of it. The taking over of the executioner’s job is a bit of a contrivance, but hey ho.
In the final scenes, where José Luis realises he’s going to have to kill a man with a garrotte himself – there is much ominous clanking of this metallic device throughout – the light comedic style falls away entirely and Berlanga’s intent is revealed. In a suddenly grimly powerful scene, one group containing the condemned man makes its way across a stark open space, as does another holding up the fainting José Luis who is being physically delivered up to do his duty.
Spain still executed people by garrotte into the 1970s but until this moment you’d not have guessed it was all building to a message so stark, thanks to its camouflage as a light-as-air comedy with farcical overtones – there’s even a “whoops there go my trousers” moment early on.
The performances suit the tone – light, agile, precise, funny, with Manfredi a handsome, leading-man foil to older, wily farceur Isbert (who made several films with Berlanga) and Emma Penella particularly excellent as Carmen, the executioner’s daughter, a performance that’s grace and ease itself.
Berlanga is a master of choreographing complicated scenes containing several spheres of action and the 4K Criterion remaster really brings home what a high order of film-making he was capable of. It gives the lie to the idea that Spanish films of this era aren’t technically up to the sort of stuff Italy or France were turning out. That said, it’s shot by an Italian, Tonino Delli Tolli, who’d later shoot Once Upon a Time in America for Sergio Leone (so no slouch) and the crisp remastering also make his achievements more impressive. The opening shot alone – still life with prison guard and his breakfast – gorgeously sets the tone.
It’s very much a film of the 1960s, with old people and tradition seen as holding back young people, who want freedom and escape and sex, set against a backdrop of Spain becoming a European tourist destination. All the foreigners in this film are progressive, hip, carefree and fun-loving.
It’s a big film in Spain but less often watched elsewhere, which is a pity. Pedro Almodóvar is a fan. You can see why. He could almost have made it himself – butterfly busy up top, something else rumbling below – except he’d have done it in colour.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023