The tragic struggle of the loser on the Vespa
The late Alfredo Landa was more than just a star of Spanish comic cinema – he represented a country’s national and generational frustrations.
By Alan Murphy
Alfredo Landa, who died last week, was iconic in the world of Spanish cinema as a comic Everyman, lending his name to a style of popular comedy – landismo. Like Norman Wisdom in the UK or Jerry Lewis in the US, Landa played the common man, who, for all his follies and petty obsessions, remains true to himself (and the leading lady). He rebels against authority not because he is a rebel by nature but because only by rebelling can he retain integrity, and he gets the girl in the final reel. However Landa, like Wisdom or Lewis, also showed his talents as a serious dramatic actor.
In 1984 he was chosen by Mario Camus to play the lead role of Los santos inocentes, a peasant farmer whose innate strength allows him to bear the indignities of the cruel local landlord. The crude class conflict which results has Landa at its epicentre, a simple man trying to remain the calm eye of the storm. His stark performance, and the bleak minimalism of the film as a whole, makes Los santos inocentes a notable achievement in the school of social realism, and a lesson in the use of spare dialogue that present-day Spanish cinema, possessed by verborrhea, could well heed. (The film in its entirety is available to watch here.)
Luis García Berlanga, the savage satirist of Spanish hypocrisy, chose him the following year for Spanish Civil War black comedy La Vaquilla, to play a hardbitten military commander, And from 1980 onward Landa had come to be a fixture in José Luis Garci’s melodramatic universe of nostalgia and yearning, where his simple dignity lent tragic power to the keynote sense of loss in Garci’s films.
Over the 1960s and 70s, nearly a hundred “españolada” films (low budget comedies for domestic consumption) featured Landa as the common man at the centre of the comic action. These movies were subject to the censorship of the Franco regime and exemplified the spirit of the dictatorship’s later years. Satire of the regime was out, but poking fun at the obstructive unhelpfulness of bureaucrats was allowed; no female flesh could be shown and on-screen sexual contact was taboo, but double standards prevailed and the married hero usually had a dalliance or two with a Swedish tourist or a pretty student at the beach. Alfredo Landa – short, unpretty and uncultured – fitted the bill of the common Spaniard perfectly. In 1984, Franscico Umbral defined the landismo of these late-Franco-era films:
Landismo was borrowing your mate’s Vespa to go and pick up girls at the dancehall. Landismo was having a girl on the side for the weekdays and another for Sundays. Landismo was working as an assistant to a man who cuts corns off people’s feet and calling yourself a podologist… Landismo was believing yourself to be short and not very deadly. Landismo was struggling in daily life against your environment, without ever thinking about the problem of why the environment was being so hostile to you. Alfredo Landa was there to bring all the national and generational frustrations, everyone’s frustrations, into himself for an hour and a half of wacky film action and to save us from them. Only a great actor could do that, and only an actor who emerges from the people.
The average Spaniard, like the Landa character, knew he was low on the social scale. He had worked in Germany (Vente a Alemania, Pepe 1970), and had some flings with foreign tourists (Pero ¿en país vivimos? 1967) and he saw that his country was ridiculously backward. He saw that in Spain the loathsome pijos (posh people) got the nice cars and the cushy jobs in a government ministry. For him and his mates, Spanish life under Franco was the borrowed Vespa, the job cutting calluses and the campsite in the summer where you strive for all life’s worth to score with girls above your league and to convince them for a night you are somebody.
In his appreciation of Landa for El País, Carlos Boyero wrote: “For myself, I have no nostalgia for landismo, for the tackiness of those complacently undeveloped comedies, for the stink of those many hateful things, shameful clichés and rotten attitudes of that unlovable country. But to deny the effectiveness, the talent and the professionalism of the greatest protagonist of that cinema would be unfair and moronic.”
Landa vs Torrente
T.S. Eliot said that “humankind cannot bear too much reality” and it could well be that the trend for the comedic everyman who reflects the inadequacies and frustrations of his audience had its day with the passing of Landa, Wisdom and Lewis. Today’s Spaniard, with even bleaker prospects than those of Landa’s generation, has as the principal comic paradigm Santiago Segura’s venal cop Torrente – the Spanish everyman not as thwarted and oppressed man of the people, but as a squalid and corrupt authority figure grabbing as much as he can while the going’s good.
It’s still social realism, perhaps, but in relation to injustice and oppression, the Torrente films represent the join’em rather than beat’em school of thought. Landa’s man on the Vespa, for all his failings, represented a different approach. When faced with the injustices and callous indifference of authority, neither beat them nor join them, but remain true to yourself and… Wow! Check out those Swedish blondes in bikinis over there! Near the pedalos. My wife’s off with the kids at my mother-in-law’s house so this is our chance. You tell them you’re a banker and I’ll be a surgeon with a yacht…
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