El Verdugo, is widely considered as the masterpiece of Spanish cinema. This black comedy is of the highest order and directed by Luis Garcia Berlanga- So much of its humor being derived from the seriousness of the characters in the preposterous situations they find themselves in a brilliant context it is set in.
El Verdugo, means “The Executioner” in Spanish. I still say this movie has been an unknown entity and a neglected work of art, especially for the connoisseurs of World Cinema and one that I had vaguely heard of for a long time. Once started making the rounds of various movies and personally the Spanish films and their directors, I discovered the work of Luis Berlanga. He spearheaded the dramatic transformation of Spanish cinema that underwent in the 1950s and early 1960s. In spite of the harsh censorship that hallmarked Francisco Franco’s military and Catholic-inspired regime, Berlanga succeeded in directing a series of films that undermined the mores of the Dictatorship and established him as the most important Spanish film director of his generation till the turn of 21st century. From his first film in 1951 to his final movie París-Timbuctú (1999), which heralded his retirement, Berlanga has proved a consistent thorn in the side of authority, both during the Dictatorship and throughout the democratic period that followed the death of Franco in 1975. While his particular version of ‘the popular’ is indisputably rebellious, such subversion has proved politically problematic. Claimed, at times, by both the Left and the Right, he has never easily fitted in to either generic or ideological categories.
The decade of 60s and know nothing about the Spanish topography, this movie really piqued my interest. Plus, it sounded like such an entertaining film. I had to see what I could do about watching it. Believe me this is such a praiseworthy film and so here I am to relight that stroke of genius of Luis Garcia Berlanga.
The plot is rather strange- Jose Luis (Nino Manfredi) is a young employee in a funeral parlour who meets an executioner named Amadeo when he goes to a prison to perform a service. Amadeo is about to retire. When Jose Luis takes Amadeo’s briefcase containing his professional instruments that he had forgotten to his house, he meets his daughter Carmen, who nobody wants to marry because they don’t want to become one of Amadeo’s relatives. The couple gets on well immediately, and Jose Luis is forced to marry Carmen when he is caught in an awkward situation by the old man.
In the next turn of events, an official board gives the old civil servant a house to live in with the newlyweds, who are expecting a baby. But when it is time for the old man to retire, they all have to leave the house, unless the newlywed inherits the sinister job from his father-in-law and becomes an executioner. Although he despises the idea and believes he is no good for the job, Jose Luis accepts it, thinking he will not have to carry out any executions because the death penalty is already becoming obsolete. However, one day he receives an order to go to Palma de Majorca, where he has to execute a prisoner. Hoping the desired pardon will arrive at the last minute and Jose Luis will not have to carry out his job, the family travels to the island enjoying their stay as if it were holidays. But the pardon does not arrive and, on the guardia civil’s (Spanish civil guard) requirement, the young executioner has to go to the prison, where he will be virtually dragged up the scaffold by a civil servant, together with the culprit who has to die.
Watching El Verdugo is a film of great experience and so is the comedic performance, the opening at the top with Nino Manfredi. He plays Jose Luís Rodriguez as an affable man who is ambitious to move out of his brother’s apartment and make it in the world on his own. It’s easy to feel sorry for his outcast status and easy to understand why the high pay of the executioner’s job is enticing. He comes across as something of an everyman, which is why it’s funny to see him wriggle at the prospect of following through on his job. It’s easy to understand how he is reacting, because he seems so normal. Arguably even funnier is Jose Isbert as the aging executioner Amadeo. It is impossible not to laugh when he shows off his copy of “Public Garroting” to Jose or when he uses his hands to measuring the neck size of his new son-in-law. Amadeo discusses methods of execution as you or I would discuss the weather, and such matter-of-fact tone is what puts the comedy over. Other performances are just as funny.
The interaction between Jose Luís and his sister-in-law, who he lives with her before marrying Carmen, are so much spontaneous, each of those scene and the nuances depicted are priceless in their attempt to know each other as they do not care among themselves. Jose Luís is constantly taunting her about being a poor parent, while she responds by declaring that his mother would drop dead if she saw the state of her son. Whenever the two of them are on screen together it is hysterical. The dialogue is fast and furious, with subtitles coming at a pace that is nearly too difficult to keep up with. It’s like trying to read the dialogue in any of the comedy movie, and still those moments make you to stay on your hip so eloquently and following every word of those are joyous in the mood of movie experiences.
Largely the movie is marvel and the cinematic brilliance can be highlighted in many occasions, and one such scene in particular sticks out in my mind is that when Jose is summoned to the prison for the execution, he tries desperately to explain that he took the job only so his father-in-law could maintain his apartment. The warden is determined to carry out the execution as scheduled and will hear nothing of it, nudging Jose to do his job. When it finally reaches the point of no return, José Luís still cannot go through with it. So the warden’s response is forced to carry Jose in the similar way as the guards carry the soon to be victim, that’s just steps ahead. This Berlanga’s film is just like a death march- we see Jose besieged not to lead to the execution chamber and following scenes are just as hilarious that the audience does not require any dialogue and the funny bone amuse us with the sheer delight of those visuals.
In the context of Franco’s Spain, the ideological dimensions of this message are clear. As the executioner tells his son-in-law, where there’s a law, someone has to enforce it; someone has to do the dirty work. Perhaps that was Berlanga’s way of saying that in a dictatorial regime, whether they are willing or not, men are coerced into aiding and abetting the status quo. That’s precisely this movie is considered to be the pinnacle of Spanish cinema, making it even more shocking how underappreciated it is. Many hypothesize that it has been so unknown due to the fact that it was released during the Franco reign and thus was not promoted as much as would be a major film in other European nations. Still, even to this day it always places at or near the top of any major film polls in Spain. If it were to get proper exposure, it very well could begin to place near the top of major film polls throughout the world.
In a true sense of genius, it’s a very enthusiastic movie and all credits go to Director Luis Garcia Berlanga for this chef-d’oeuvre. El Verdugo won the FIPRESCI Prize at the Venice Film Festival for the film. Yes during the release in 63, the Spanish ambassador to Italy denounced the film 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”. As many critics have pointed out Berlanga’s ring binder to his film making always brands him a kind of utopian, but he is one who never lost his piercing eyes for the ridiculous sides of power and El Verdugo, arguably his finest film, cutting across the wide canvas and truly represents the highest order of Spanish film maker…..“a mejor en su clase”
- Directed by Luis García Berlanga
- Produced by Naga Films & Zebra Films
- Written by Rafael Azcona
- Starring Nino Manfredi; Pepe Isbert; Emma Penella & José Luis Lopez Vazquez
- Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli
- Edited by Alfonso Santacana
- Release year: 1963
- Running time: 90 minutes
- Country: Spain & Italy
- Language: Spanish