Serious Spanish cinema may be said to begin with the films of Luis Berlanga and Juan Bardem, who trained together at film school, codirected a first feature in 1951, and the following year wrote Welcome, Mr. Marshall!, which Berlanga directed. This prankish satire is one of four films in the mini-retro sidebar to the Walter Reade’s “Spanish Cinema Now” program.
Although his projects were often halted and cut by censors during the dictatorship, Berlanga managed to challenge the Franco myth through comedy, ridiculing Spanish foibles with chaotic farces and outlandish sight gags. Berlanga’s own personal history is emblematic of the shifting complexities of Spanish politics. He describes himself as “a Christian, but creatively an anarchist and politically a liberal.” But as a young man, during World War II, he had volunteered for the “Blue Division” that went to battle in the Soviet Union to aid the Nazi cause. Berlanga maintains that he did so to save his Republican father from a death sentence.
Welcome, Mr. Marshall! was one of the rare Spanish films to treat political events of the day—foremost the exclusion of the country, as a pariah nation, from Marshall Plan funds. The movie concerns the frenzied attempts of a small Castilian town to seduce American money by organizing a ridiculous fiesta; the place becomes a kind of false-front movie set masking the dire conditions in which the inhabitants really live. This sharp, good-humored spoof of Spanishness—or the Hollywood image of Spanishness—bears a resemblance to the best Ealing comedies. Placido (1961) sets its aim on the Christian charities of a group of repugnant bourgeois in a provincial town, centering on a public relations campaign featuring rich families who invite paupers to their homes for Christmas dinner. (Sit a Poor Man at Your Table was the original title—until Franco’s censors nixed it.) One fine mess leads to another, creating confusion and disaster—Berlanga’s stock in trade.
His finest film, El Verdugo (1963)—released here as Not on Your Life—is a somewhat Buñuelian black tragicomedy about a mild-mannered undertaker’s assistant who, through a bizarre series of circumstances, becomes a public executioner. Formally Berlanga’s most elegant film, it was shot by Pasolini and Leone’s cinematographer, the great Tonino Delli Colli. (More’s the pity that the print on view is a mass of murk.) Despite censor cuts, Verdugo remains a powerful condemnation of capital punishment and the Francoist myths of duty and patriotism. Berlanga’s first film of the post-Franco era, The National Shotgun (1978), a strident lampoon of the ruling classes, proved his biggest commercial success and inspired two sequels. With Mr. Marshall! and El Verdugo he became a world-class auteur, but the talky and mechanical Shotgun seems the work of a local laborer.