January 2, 2017
Last week I listed Luis Garcia Berlanga’s Placido (1961) as one of my film discoveries of 2016. A devilishly funny account of Christmastime sanctimony, it was the first film I had seen by Berlanga. Luckily, The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck is streaming four more of his films so I can get further acquainted with this acidic Spaniard. The earliest work on display is Bienvenido Mr. Marshall! (aka Welcome Mr. Marshall!, 1952), Berlanga’s breakout feature, which lovingly satirizes a small Spanish town trying to lure Marshall Plan funds from the U.S. It won the second place International Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, but was famously denounced by jury member Edward G. Robinson as “anti-American.” The film is more anti-Catholic Church and Generalissimo Franco than anything else, however, as the Americans are phantoms wielded as symbols by the local government and clergy – described as both wealthy benefactors and agents of moral decay. What the film lampoons most spectacularly and thoroughly is Franco’s attempt to promote Spain in a single image: an Andalusian Spain that was all flamenco and bullfights. Before the Americans’ arrival, the town hides the drunks, throws up fake facades and wears Andalusian costumes to pretend they are a tourist paradise rather than a poor farming town. As in Placido, Berlanga uses thumbnail caricatures to populate his village, hilarious creations like the half-deaf mayor, a broke colonialist aristocrat and a rotund hustler/producer who turns their town into a Walt Disney-fied version of Spanishness.
Bienvenido Mr. Marshall! was the first film that Berlanga directed on his own. He had previously co-directed That Happy Couple with his writing partner Juan Antonio Bardem (Javier Bardem’s uncle), a bittersweet comedy about a newly married couple trying to make ends meet in Madrid. Bardem was a close friend from film school – they had both graduated from the Institute of Cinematic Investigation and Experience (IIEC) in Madrid. Mr. Marshall was originally intended to be another collaboration, a musical folk comedy set to promote young flamenco singer Lolita Sevilla. But the plot kept shifting during development, the main inspirations being the rural dramas of Emilio Fernandez and Jacques Feyder’s Carnival in Flanders (similarly about a small town changing its colors to accept a rich foreign visitor). Then absurdist playwright Miguel Mihura was brought in to tweak the script, lending it its self-reflexive narration (it opens with an omniscient voice who introduces the villagers by telling the film to stop, zoom in, and move through the town – as if the screenwriter was on the mic). Bardem dropped out due to money disputes with the production company, and Berlanga was set to direct himself.
The film is set in Villar del Río, a poor farming town that is turned upside down when government officials arrive and tell them that U.S. representatives will be visiting on a tour to determine funding for the Marshall Plan. Instead of giving their children some American flags and their women some flowers to lay at the Americans’ feet, theatrical impresario Manolo (Manolo Morán) has a grander plan – turn their city into the Andalusian paradise that exists only in tourism board photos. So the town builds new facades to cover their dingy stone houses, orders bull-fighting costumes on credit, and changes their sleepy cul-de-sac into a romantic music-filled postcard of Franco’s Spain. The idea is enthusiastically embraced by the town’s creaky old mayor Don Pablo (José Isbert), who is desperate to give his town some shine. Isbert has a gravelly Tom Waits voice and uses a prop hearing device like a conductor’s baton. He’s forever crouching in closer to hear another insane suggestion from one of his constituents, making Don Pablo a sympathetic fool. He is the richest of a poor lot, but also sweet and gullible, trying his best and constantly failing to improve Villar del Río’s lot.
So when Manolo rolls into Villa del Rio with this flamenco chanteuse Carmen (Lolita Sevilla, her character cut down significantly from the original concept), it seems like a gift from the heavens. Here is a man who knows how to deal with Americans, or at least other rich people. So the whole town is drafted into a performance they’d prefer not to be involved in. But there are promises of massive donations from the Americans, so they don the insulting outfits with reluctant enthusiasm, and stand in line to tell Don Pablo the one object they’d like to receive from the USA’s largesse. They work day and night for their grand illusion, and the only moment in the film in which everything works as it should is during the rehearsal of the Americans’ arrival. It is a grand pageant of flamenco, Spanish folk music and wide-brimmed hats, a raucous celebration that the whole town rises up for, knowing that they were performing for an audience only of themselves.
That group high lasts into their dreams. For the night before the big U.S.A. day, there are three delirious dream sequences where the villagers live out their violent fantasies of American life. The priest Don Cosme (Luis Pérez de León) has been fearful of the arrival, preaching to his choir that Americans are spiritually delinquent heretics who will despoil their simple hard working town. His dream is a nightmare montage of U.S. culture: he is arrested by hooded KKK members, interrogated in a film noir police station under one bright swinging light and sentenced before a judge of the “Un-American Activities Committee” on an expressionist B&W set. He wakes up as he is about to be hung from a rope (it is probably this sequence that Edward G. Robinson objected to). Don Luis (Alberto Romea), the last of a long line of aristocratic colonizers, is always complaining how Indians ate his ancestors, and clearly considers all Americans to be equally savage. His dream has him plant his flag on U.S. soil only to be put into a pot to be boiled. Before he is plated for dinner his cats wake him up. Don Pablo had just come out of a Western at the one-screen cinema, so his dream has him engaged in a chaotic shootout at an Old West saloon, dying in a showgirl’s arms.
Villar del Río wakes up the next morning and tries to meet their fantasies of the United States with what they believe the Americans’ fantasy of Spain is – that is, wide-brimmed hats, flamenco in the streets, wild displays of emotion. It is a collision of misunderstandings, if only the U.S. representatives would show up. The film ends in an anticlimax that brutally returns Villar del Río to reality. No longer a political plaything, the town sloughs off Franco’s projected image of Spain, its own visions of America, and gets back to the hard work of being itself.