December 20, 2016
Placido (1961) takes place over the course of one chaotic Christmas Eve night as a provincial Spanish town desperately tries to prove its Christian charity. It is a ferociously funny black comedy about performative morality, in which the homeless are used as props to stroke the middle classes’ ego. It is directed by Luis Garcia Berlanga (The Executioner) with intricately orchestrated long takes in which a chorus of self-serving characters negotiate the social corridors of Franco’s Spain. With its rhythmic rapid-fire dialogue and cutting use of caricature, it reminded me most of Preston Sturges (and the small town misunderstandings of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)). Placido is now streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, along with four other Berlanga features.
It is all set in motion by an elaborate publicity stunt engineered by Spanish kitchenware manufacturer Cocinex, who encourage their customers to “Sit a Poor Person at Your Dinner Table.” All the best houses must have a homeless guest of their own if they want to maintain their status. So all the winos in the area are gathered together for a parade in which they have to stand in the freezing cold. They share the parade cars with so-called “movie stars” from Madrid (to be auctioned off as dinner guests for charity) — but they are really bit players and showgirls.
Stuck in the middle of all this madness is Placido (Casto Sendra, aka “Cassen”), a member of the working poor whose family lives in a public lavatory. He makes what little wages he does with his motorized cart, which he is paying down in installments. The first payment is due Christmas Eve night, but he is working the parade – his cart turned into a makeshift float, a shooting star bursting out of its roof. Placido is trying to get paid, chase down the bill collector, and stave off repossession for a month. Cassen was a popular comedian of stage and small screen, and Berlanga plucked him for his first film role in Placido. He is the film’s stubborn interlocutor, a witness to the madness developing around him who just wants to pay his bill and go home. Cassen plays him with a thin patience, on the verge of snapping but holding himself together all the same. His face is still, but his short angry strides are expressive. He knows he will not receive charity, because he is not aesthetically poor, only materially so. He doesn’t have the alcoholic’s red nose, the torn cap, missing teeth. All he has are a family to feed and a dwindling means of support.
His employer is Gabino Quintanilla (José Luis López Vázquez), a neurasthenic parade organizer who is tasked with solving endless operational problems, from a missing beauty queen to dinner guest heart attacks. He is a curiously opaque character, for while his role is functionary, oiling the rails for Cocinex’s exploitative sideshow, Gabino does his best to get Placido his money. Though it is admittedly not #1 on his list of priorities. Those would be pleasing his own bosses, getting rid of his sinusitis and corralling his fiancée, who has developed a crush on one of the movie stars. Vázquez is a marvel, his performance orchestrating Gabino’s nervous tics into anxious art.
These two are surrounded by legions of caricatured types who pass through quickly but leave evocative traces: a blustery old actor with delusions of fame, a pompadoured radio host who lies with panache and a cadaverous notary who is at a loss of what to do with his drunken dinner guest wino who just wants to sing folk songs. As class lines are crossed the movie ratchets up the chaos – soon Placido’s bill collector chase becomes wrapped up in a deathbed wedding of questionable legality, leading to his festive parade cart being used as a hearse. In the end everyone is back where they started, with Placido having to scheme a day-to-day living, Gabino alone and likely to remain that way and the rest of the proper homes in town cleansed of the poor’s presence so the self-congratulation can begin. The film is a tour-de-force of inertia.
Placido was censored by Franco’s government, but the version that exists still stings, and was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award. Berlanga was hard to place politically – he fought against Franco towards the end of the civil war, but in order to curry favor to save his father’s life, he volunteered for Franco’s División Azul, which went to fight in Russia on the side of the Germans. These experiences made him suspicious about everyone – he is something of a cynical realist. After Franco tried to suppress screenings of The Executioner (1963) he was reported to have said, “Berlanga is not a Communist, he is worse than a Communist, he is a bad Spaniard.” Placido shows the bad Spaniard at his most incorrigible, depicting his country as an amoral carnival where presentation trumps reality. As Berlanga described his work: “My films are about failure. They’re about individuals who see a chance to get out of the mess they’re in and set out to grab that chance, but they always fail, because it was an illusion anyway.”