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Berlanga, the bad Spaniard

His ability to outwit Franco’s censors is one reason why the late Berlanga was so admired. But his finest films were also examples of cinema at its best.


A scene from Berlanga's 'Plácido'. The director was a genius at both sidestepping censorship and portraying Spanish society.

Luis García Berlanga, who has died aged 89, will be remembered not just for his wonderful films: in making them he also led the shift towards serious film-making in Spain in the 1950s and 1960s. His achievement is all the more remarkable in the context of a military dictatorship that had either eliminated or forced into exile most of the artists who had flourished during the all-too-brief Second Republic.

Looking back at his hallmark movies made during the depths of the Franco dictatorship, one can only marvel at his courage and determination, along with his ability to outwit the general’s censors.

And while Berlanga was a thorn in the side of the regime —from his first film in 1951 to his final movie París-Timbuctú (1999)— he was much more than just a “political” director. He was a popular director, and, as the laudatory obits in ABC, La Razón, and El Mundo reveal, his particular brand of subversion is claimed as much by the right as the left.

Born into a wealthy family in Valencia, Berlanga enjoyed a privileged childhood until the Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936. His father was a member of the Valencia regional representation in the national parliament. After the war, Berlanga senior was arrested and sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted but he remained in prison until 1952, and died six months after his release.

His fate may have had something to do with Berlanga junior’s decision to serve in the Blue Division — the unit of Spanish soldiers who travelled to the Soviet Union to fight for Germany in World War II.

Berlanga never saw action, but his absurdist, and very bleak vision of Spain must have been formed by his wartime experiences.

After picking up his studies in the late 1940s, Berlanga dropped literature when the Madrid film school opened in 1947. The pompously named Institute of Cinematic Investigation and Experience (IIEC) had been set up by Franco —himself a big movie fan, and one who understood the power of cinema as a medium to keep the masses happy— and was based on Mussolini’s Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, which after the war, spearheaded realism.

As soon as he had his ticket, Berlanga and a coterie of his fellow graduates set about distancing themselves from the regime. They founded Altamira and Uninci to produce their own films.

While Berlanga was impressed by Italian realism, his first film, Esa pareja feliz, a romantic comedy made in 1951 about a young couple’s economic struggles, owes more to Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico and the pre-Civil War light comedy of sainete than Miracle in Milan or Bicycle Thieves.

The film’s moralistic ending, with the young couple seeing the evils of consumerism, reflects the influence of co-director Juan Antonio Bardem —a communist, and Javier’s grandfather— but jars with the pessimism that would follow, when the Valencian would direct alone.

Berlanga’s next film, made in 1953, is perhaps his most celebrated: ¡Bienvenido Mister Marshall!, which while parodying the Franco regime’s portrayal of Spain as a land of bullfights and sultry flamenco dancers, also lambasts the United States for leaving Spain out of the post-war Marshall Plan. I suspect that it is for the latter that Franco allowed it.

At the same time, Berlanga was trying to change the direction of Spanish cinema through participation in such initiatives as the Conversaciones de Salamanca, which brought together left–wing critics, academics, actors, and film directors.

Berlanga’s golden period began in 1956 with a ferocious parody of the Catholic Church in Los Jueves, milagro (Thursdays: miracles). Then, in 1959, he met scriptwriter Rafael Azcona, working with him for the next 35 years.

The partnership produced Plácido (1961) and El verdugo (The Executioner, 1963) and both are masterpieces of understatement. Plácido was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film, and El verdugo won the critics’ prize at Venice. They portrayed a Spain undergoing the transition to economic modernity, combining Berlanga’s sense of the absurd and theatricality of life with Azcona’s dark comedy.

“Worse than a communist”

Berlanga had won international recognition, but blotted his copybook at home. The Spanish ambassador to Italy denounced the director’s work as a slur on the Spanish nation and Franco himself was widely reported as saying “Berlanga is not a communist, he is worse than a communist, he is a bad Spaniard.”

Prevented from working in Spain for several years, Berlanga never found the same form again. After a forgettable Argentinean-Spanish production in 1969, he travelled to France in 1973 to make Tamaño Natural (Life Size) with Michel Piccoli, about a man’s relationship with a blow-up doll.

The death of Franco in 1975 should have ushered in a new era for Berlanga. It may be that he was at his best when battling authoritarian restrictions, but his comedies of the 1980s and 1990s, which lambast the corruption of the Socialist Party era, and the culture of greed that swept the nation, lack the punch of El verdugo and Plácido.

La escopeta nacional (The National Shotgun, 1978) —the first and best movie in a trilogy following the fortunes of the Leguineches, a once wealthy family descended from the nobility that has fallen on hard times— tells the story of a businessman who joins the nation’s most powerful men on a hunting expedition and provokes a national crisis. The film was inspired by an allegedly real event that took place in the 1960s, when the newly appointed minister of information, Manuel Fraga, joined Franco and his family on a hunting expedition and by accident fired pellets into the backside of Franco’s daughter.

Berlanga’s final films are open-ended farces, and as in his earlier work, powerful figures come off badly. Seen in the context of his oeuvre overall, they nevertheless retain the commitment to subversion of his earlier films, and illustrate the subtlety of his politics.

But Berlanga was not a political director. The reason why his work, and particularly his best three films, will endure is because their subversion lies in their unruliness and irreverence, not in any political statement. Fortunately for us, Berlanga kept his eye on the popular.

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Published: Nov 18 2010
Category: Culture, Films
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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