January 17, 2017
Over the last few months I have been exploring the films of Luis Garcia Berlanga, an acerbic Spaniard who turned Franco-era fascist bureaucracy into grim comedy. In Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall (1953) a poor town dresses up as a romantic Andalusian village to impress impending American visitors, while in Placido (1961) a group of moralizing middle-class businessmen use the homeless as props for a publicity blitz. The grimmest of Berlanga’s works I’ve watched so far, however, is The Executioner (1963) a squirm-inducing death penalty comedy in which murder is just another way to get ahead. Displaying the full range of Berlanga’s gift for caricature, deep-focus joke-building and disgust with the Franco regime, it’s a comedy in which the laughs die in your throat. All three of these works are now streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck.
In short The Executioner is about an undertaker who marries an executioner’s daughter. The undertaker is José Luis Rodríguez (Nino Manfredi), who works that dead end job while living in a cramped apartment with his brother’s family. Every woman he meets scampers away when they learn about his job. When towing away the corpse of a killer he meets the executioner Amadeo (José Isbert), who, blessed by the state, kills his victims with a garrote. Nearing retirement, Amadeo lives with his daughter Carmen (Emma Penella), who cannot secure a man because they blanch when they hear about her father’s vocation. With no other options on the horizon, José and Carmen get married. But then comes the news that Amadeo’s fancy new state housing will be revoked after his retirement. It can only be secured if José takes on the job of executioner, only José is repulsed and terrified by the proposition. But with a baby on the way and intense familial pressure, José accepts the position anyway, in the hopes that he’ll never have to perform his assigned task. He even takes to breaking up arguments in the street in the hopes of lowering the city’s murder rate. But alas, he is finally called to perform his duty, and despite all his promises to resign, can no longer avoid his fate. It is just easier to get along in this life if you do what the government asks, even if they are asking you to take another’s life.
Franco’s government recognized the incendiary nature of the film, which was made soon after he had executed three of his political opponents, Communist Party member Julián Grimau and anarchists Francisco Granados Mata and Joaquín Delgado Martínez.. The Spanish ambassador to Italy Alfredo Sanchez Bella, after seeing it at the Venice Film Festival, wrote a letter to Franco disparaging it as, “one of the greatest libels ever made against Spain, an incredible political pamphlet, not only against the regime but against all society too.” It is rather remarkable that only fifteen minutes were cut by censors, and that it was still released into theaters at all in Spain. Perhaps it was allowed through due to that last phrase, “but against all society too.” Perhaps the censors missed the pointed attack on Franco due to the film’s overall nihilism, in which everyone has their reasons to tacitly endorse murder. Or maybe they just admired its craft.
Despite the brutality of the film’s subject, it can be a very funny movie. This is due to Berlanga’s ability to give every bit part a humorous detail or color, getting jokes out of everyone. There is a an old couple sitting in the background in the park listening to the radio. José and Carmen walk by, and start dancing to the tunes in the foreground. Incensed that José and Carmen are dancing to his music for “free”, he shuts the radio off and stalks away, snapping at them to get their own music. This is a remarkable act of stinginess, to be protective of the sound vibrations emanating inside a public park. How bitter and cantankerous this old duo must be! But they are just another passing character in Berlanga’s parade of short-tempered Spaniards. Another brilliant set piece occurs during José and Carmen’s wedding, a budget affair that uses the scraps from the bourgeois wedding that happened immediately before theirs. So the happy couple walks up a red carpet as it is being rolled up, kneel at an altar as the candles are being snuffed out by an altar boy, and shuffle towards the sole source of light until that, too, is eliminated, and their nuptials are sealed in the dark. It is a brilliant scene of visual gags that cruelly depicts the income inequality that will later force José into his act of violence. The ever-inventive cinematography was shot by the legendary Tonino Delli Colli, a previous collaborator of Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly  and Once Upon a Time in the West ) and Pier Paolo Pasolini (The Decameron, 1971).
José Isbert was a beloved character actor, his persona that of a befuddled rustic. To put him in the role of an executioner was already a provocation, and Isbert ported over his usual charms to the role, making Amadeo a charming figure despite the details of his job. Amadeo is relentlessly upbeat, vigorously nostalgic grandpa, even though what he is nostalgic for are the days when those on death row had more respect for his job. He keeps a framed photo of one of his victims on the wall, and unpacks his garotte equipment on the kitchen table, as if he were a handyman rather than a government sanctioned killer. He is, he claims, only doing a job that needs to get done. If it wasn’t him doing the garroting, it would be someone else. So he might as well take the paycheck. This is the attitude of everyone in the film, passing the buck of morality until there is no one left to pick it up. The final holdout is José, not out of bravery but cowardice. He insists that he will resign before executing the condemned man. But, the warden explains to him, with the way the bureaucracy worked it would take at least a week to find a different executioner, putting the condemned through even more mental torture. The shortest, easiest path through that bureaucratic red tape is to kill the man. Sure it would undermine José’s whole moral compass, but the warden has a prison to run, and Franco had his country to govern. Don’t ask questions, but do your job. What does it matter if you lose your soul along the way.