Luis García Berlanga spearheaded the dramatic transformation that Spanish cinema 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. 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 undeniably subversive, 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.
Born into a wealthy, land-owning family in Spain’s eastern province of Valencia, Berlanga enjoyed a comfortable and untroubled upbringing until the onset of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936. While the Francoist uprising sought to bring down the democratically-elected Second Republic, Berlanga’s father was one of the Valencia regional representatives in the national parliament. In the aftermath of the war Berlanga senior was arrested and sentenced to death. Eventually the sentence was commuted but he remained in prison until 1952, only to die six months after his release. Meanwhile, shortly before the end of the war the 18-year-old Berlanga junior was mobilised by the Republican forces and conscripted into a medical unit. Following the Francoist victory, in what constitutes one of the many paradoxes of Berlanga’s life, he seemingly changed sides and volunteered 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 as part of an agreement between Hitler and Franco—in a desperate effort to gain favour with the regime and save his father’s life. Although he never directly saw action, the future filmmaker would draw upon these experiences in later life and the dark comedy that pervades his cinema is marked by these ironies. Berlanga is not only the funniest but also the bleakest of Spanish directors.
Once back in Spain, Berlanga moved to Madrid and commenced his studies in literature at the city’s Complutense University. It was during this period that he developed an interest in cinema. In 1947, when the Madrid film school—the portentously named Institute of Cinematic Investigation and Experience (IIEC)—opened, Berlanga promptly dropped his literary studies and switched. Created by Franco’s cultural commissars after the Civil War, the school was modelled on Rome’s Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia founded by Benito Mussolini (which spawned, amongst other lauded directors, Roberto Rossellini and Michelangelo Antonioni).
Together with his classmates from the first promotion of graduates from the IIEC—among whom was his friend and close collaborator, lifelong Communist Party member, Juan Antonio Bardem—Berlanga was instrumental in the creation, firstly, of Altamira and then Uninci, the production company behind some of the most significant Spanish movies of the post-war period and which, in time, would produce Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana (1961).
Keen to distance themselves from what they perceived as the backward, dogmatic, censored and often religious-based cinema required of them by the regime, Berlanga, Bardem and company were enthusiastic about the work of their counterparts in Italy. The screening of a series of movies during the 1951 Italian film week in Madrid came as a revelation to them.
While the impression that Italian neorealism caused upon these budding filmmakers is undeniable, the evidence of its influence in practical terms on Spanish cinema is negligible, and this is particularly so in the work of Berlanga. Many critics have sought to pigeon hole Berlanga into the convenient category of neorealism, partly because it has proved easier to construct him in this way, but also because it is a means by which to avoid serious exploration of Berlanga’s complex relation with the Spanish literary and filmic tradition. The critical disjuncture surrounding Berlanga concerns his function as a popular filmmaker. As I have written elsewhere, Berlanga is often found situated at a problematic frontier between popular culture and cultural populism. (1) Berlanga’s relationship with politics, moreover, is equally complicated and very often contradictory. While Bardem explicitly linked his politics to those of neorealism and sought to create an oppositional cinema both through his own films and magazines such as Objetivo (founded in 1953), Berlanga has consistently eluded categorisation. His refusal to share Bardem’s militancy is coupled with his insistence that the subversive nature of his cinema belongs within a tradition of Spanish popular theatre known as sainete (2) that, although originating in the 18th century, reached its most powerful expression during the Second Republic.
In 1955 Berlanga and Bardem were present and decisive at a celebrated conference, known as the Conversaciones de Salamanca, organised by critic and director Basilio Martín Patino as an attempt to refocus the direction Spanish cinema was taking and to co-ordinate a dialogue between liberal elements within the state machinery (most notably the erstwhile head of cinema and theatre in the Ministry of Tourism and Information, José María García Escudero, who would hold the position on two different occasions in 1951 and 1962) and the moderately left opposition. It was Bardem’s searing intervention in the course of the Conversaciones that has defined (and in my view misdefined) the entire generation. Bardem declared that Spanish cinema was, “politically ineffectual, socially false, intellectually poverty-stricken, aesthetically void and industrially stunted.”
In spite of Bardem’s speech at the Salamanca conference, it is simply not the case that Spanish cinema prior to his work and that of Berlanga was exclusively a vehicle for the Dictatorship and its allies in the Catholic Church, even though such a view was common currency among critics until recently. Over the last decade new scholarship has demonstrated that relatively few Spanish movies of the immediate post-war period conformed to Bardem’s caricature. Of the more than 500 films made in Spain between 1939 and 1951—the so-called period of autarky or cultural and economic self-sufficiency—less than 20 conform to this particular caricature. The vast majority of the nation’s film production consisted of musicals, melodramas and popular comedies. Even the populist, albeit brutally repressive, Franco (himself a fan of cinema) acknowledged the need to make concessions. In the aftermath of the war, the Nationalist victors were conscious of the necessity of incorporating the bulk of the losing masses into their project. To this end, the horrors of the post-war period were coupled with cultural initiatives designed to elicit popular consent.
After graduation from the IIEC Berlanga and Bardem were chosen by their colleagues in Altamira to jointly direct Esa pareja feliz (That Happy Couple) in 1951, a bittersweet comedy concerning the economic difficulties of a newly-wedded couple living in Madrid who are chosen by lottery to represent a soap company for a day, with all the presents and free meals that come with it. Starring Fernando Fernán Gomez (a stalwart of Spanish cinema from 1940s to the present day) and Elvira Quintillá, this is very much a debut film that owes as much to sainete and Ealing comedy as it does to neorealism. The influence of the Communist Bardem is particularly clear towards the end of the film as the couple come to consciousness as to the nature of wealth and power. From then onwards, in Berlanga’s solo career as a film director, his work is marked by a much more pessimistic sense of humour, in which such moral conclusions are noticeably absent. Indeed Berlanga consistently violates the conventions of comedy by refusing to countenance the concept of a happy ending.
¡Bienvenido Mister Marshall! (Welcome Mister Marshall!, 1952) the first full-length film Berlanga directed alone, marks a watershed in Spanish cinema history. Although it is probably his most celebrated film, it is by no means his best. Originally conceived of as a musical vehicle to launch the career of the teenage flamenco singer Lolita Sevilla, Berlanga created both a devastating parody of Francoist mythmaking (particularly of the regime’s promotion of Spain to the outside world as a picturesque paradise of bullfighting and flamenco), and a searing commentary on the Economic Recovery Program (better known as The Marshall Plan), of which Spain was never a beneficiary. Made the year before the United States established military bases on Spanish territory, ¡Bienvenido Mister Marshall! manages to lampoon Hollywood, McCarthyism, the Catholic Church and Francoism all at the same time. Remarkably, the Spanish authorities saw little to object in it and the film escaped major censorship. However, the film missed out on a prize at the Cannes Film Festival that year due to the veto of jury member Edward G. Robinson who complained of its anti-Americanism.
Following ¡Bienvenido Mister Marshall! Berlanga directed the tame and inconsequential Novio a la vista (Boyfriend in Sight) in 1953, before experiencing the first of several lengthy periods of inactivity that plagued his career. Eventually in 1956 he made Calabuch and then Los jueves, milagro (Miracles on Thursdays, 1957). This latter film is claimed by Berlanga to have been savaged by censorship. (3) Concerning the fabrication of miracles for commercial purposes, such is the ferocity of its parody of the Catholic Church that one wonders what it was like prior to being censored. This is even more the case when one considers that the production company behind the film was connected to the Church and Berlanga was obliged to co-write it with a priest!
At the end of the 1950s Berlanga met the man who would become (and remains) the doyen of Spanish screenwriters, Rafael Azcona. A hitherto impecunious novelist and hack writer at the humourist weekly magazine La Codorniz, Azcona had begun his film career, adapting his own novels, for the Italian director Marco Ferreri. The encounter with Berlanga was to prove fortuitous and the two men would work together for the following 35 years. Berlanga’s masterpieces Plácido (1961) and El verdugo (The Executioner, 1963) were among their first collaborations. Both films portrayed a Spain undergoing the transition to economic modernity. Likewise, they combine Berlanga’s sense of carnival with Azcona’s savagely black humour. From Plácido onwards the work of Berlanga would be marked by its chaotic depiction of the unpredictable crowd and by his major contribution to cinematic technique, his particular use of the long take or sequence shot.
Berlanga’s use of the sequence shot is central to a much remarked upon feature of his cinema: its choral quality. Berlanga’s cinematic composition (and his comedy) emerges out of the representation of the crisis of an individual (who is usually male) in the conflictual context of the multitudinous group. Furthermore, his faithfulness to the same group of repertory actors (a generation trained in theatre and very often in music hall) that, with few exceptions, has remained with him for the last 40 years, gives a particularly ‘spontaneous’ feel to his cinema. This team, together with Berlanga’s idiosyncratic camera work, has enabled the director to portray the ‘popular’ while retaining his own very personal style. In this way, just as he has violated critical categories of popular film, he has also complicated established approaches to auteur cinema.
Nominated for the Best Foreign Language film award at that year’s Oscars, Plácido—a Christmas movie—has a direct relationship with the work of Frank Capra and in particular It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), albeit with none of Capra’s sentimentality. Meanwhile, if Plácido unmasked the dominant discourses surrounding the traditional family and Christian charity, El verdugo, arguably his finest film, struck at the very heart of the repressive Francoist state. El verdugo tells the story of a man who, on marrying the daughter of the state executioner, is condemned to inherit his father-in-law’s job. This is a story that interrogates and unveils the anatomy of Spanish society at an historical turning point. The film, for example, unpicks the reality of the country’s 1960s tourist boom that would, on the one hand, help consolidate the revived fortunes of the Spanish economy, while on the other, would bring with it the unwanted ‘foreign’ values of liberalism and sexual freedom.
El verdugo provoked a major controversy. Selected to compete at the Venice Film Festival, the Spanish government fought strenuously to prevent its screening. By pure coincidence, the regime had attracted international attention and outrage earlier the same year by executing three of its political opponents: Communist Party member Julián Grimau and anarchists Francisco Granados Mata and Joaquín Delgado Martínez. Ironically, but very typically of the critical reception of Berlanga’s work, there was no consensus of opinion as to how to approach El verdugo. At Venice (where it was acclaimed and awarded the critics prize) Italian anarchists saw it as an apology for the Francoist state. On the other hand, 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.”
It is with these two films that Berlanga breached the borders of Spain and his international status was established. His own distinctive and discordant voice emerges from out of a mosaic of cinematic debts from both home and abroad. Among these influences are not only Capra, but also figures such as Jean Renoir, René Clair and, above all, his close friend and ally in anarchy, Federico Fellini.
Although he continued to make movies until his retirement in 1999, El verdugo marks the last of the great Berlanga films. For political reasons, partly arising out of the Venice controversy, he found it difficult to work in Spain and in 1967 Berlanga, again working with a script written by Azcona, directed a flawed Argentine production, La boutique. He would return to Spain in 1969 to make ¡Vivan los novios! (Long Live the Bride and Groom!), a confused parody of the then-fashionable, albeit infantile, tendency prevailing throughout popular European cinema towards frivolity and titillation.
In 1973 he travelled to France to make what he has claimed to be one of his most personal movies, Tamaño natural (Life Size). Tamaño natural stars the French actor Michel Piccoli (as an alter ego for Berlanga), an actor who he would call upon once more in 1999 for his final—and valedictory—film, París-Timbuctú. Although lacking the sardonic bite and the subversive brilliance of the early 1960s’ Berlanga, these two films foreground a constant theme that runs throughout the director’s work: that of masculine solitude and the finite nature of life. Berlanga’s own flippant statements in interview have served, unfortunately, to undermine the serious quality of these films. His self-accusation of misogyny, for example, is not borne out in practice, in either his life or his cinema. More than anything else, these two movies condense Berlanga’s personal philosophy, his agnosticism and his pessimism. As with all great comedians since Aristophanes, the central issue in the work of Berlanga concerns death: fear of death, laughing at death and death by laughter.
The death of Franco in 1975 once more opened doors for Berlanga to work freely. It has been suggested that, like other subversive filmmakers, Berlanga is at his finest when working in difficult circumstances. Certainly he was never fully able to regain the critical force of Plácido, El verdugo or even ¡Bienvenido Mister Marshall! again. One of the consequences of the ending of censorship was that it enabled Berlanga to fully explore and exploit what had only been possible to hint at in his earlier films: that of bodily function and disfunction. His Fellini-like obsession with the human body has often been confused (to a large degree thanks to Berlanga himself) with eroticism. The body in Berlanga’s work is, nonetheless, either symbolic of age and decay or it is celebratory of human consumption; in spite of the director’s own analysis, it rarely concerns sexuality.
Perhaps more pertinently, in light of such critical films as El verdugo, is the suggestion of a lack of political force in the later Berlanga. The fact remains though that Berlanga is not a political animal in an identificatory sense of possessing a specific ideological affiliation. In spite of that, his political problems persisted beyond the Dictatorship. For a brief period at the end of the 1970s and early 1980s he was President of the Spanish Filmoteca (the National Film Archive) but fell foul of his new ‘democratic’ political masters. His final films tend to be farces that, in common with the earlier films, are open-ended and in which powerful figures come off badly. It is in the nature of his cinema that subversion is carnivalesque and largely unintended. Additionally, the subtlety of Berlanga’s politics has often been underestimated. The following example perhaps serves to illustrate the complexity of this filmmaker’s political engagement.
La escopeta nacional (The National Shotgun, 1978)—the first and best movie in a trilogy that follows the fortunes of the Leguineches, a formerly wealthy family descended from the nobility that has fallen upon hard times—concerns a businessman who joins the nation’s most powerful figures on a hunting expedition and provokes a crisis of state. The film was inspired by a real event that took place in the 1960s when the newly-appointed Government Minister of Information, Manuel Fraga, joined Franco and his family on a hunting expedition and by accident fired pellets into Franco’s daughter’s rear end. The anecdote, while containing a perfect array of ingredients for any comic filmmaker, proved pertinent both to the career of Berlanga in retrospect and to more recent current affairs. In 1963, Fraga was the Francoist Minister charged with justifying the execution of Julián Grimau to the world and, in passing, the person responsible for adopting reprisals against Berlanga for El verdugo. 40 years later, towards the end of the year 2002, an oil tanker called Prestige was wrecked off the Galician coast in north-western Spain. Thousands of tonnes of crude oil washed up on the region’s beaches causing what has been termed the nation’s most important ecological disaster ever. In the aftermath of the catastrophe it was revealed that—when it was assumed he was supervising the rescue and clean up operation—the President of the Galician regional government, the very same (albeit now octogenarian and democratically-elected) Manuel Fraga, was hundreds of kilometres away in the southern-centre of Spain participating in a hunting expedition.
This anecdote reflects the intricately problematic relationship Berlanga has maintained with the great and the good of the Spanish state throughout his career in both dictatorial and democratic periods. Like all great comics Berlanga’s glancing irreverence has proved unruly and genuinely subversive where more explicit and ideologically motivated cinema often fails. Berlanga’s final films emphasise his fondness for the irrepressible humour of parody, often rooted in the traditional festivities that originate in his native Valencia. As many critics have pointed out, Berlanga’s commitment to ‘the popular’ makes him a kind of utopian but he is one who has never lost his acerbic eye for the ridiculous aspects of power.
Esa pareja feliz (That Happy Couple) (1951)
¡Bienvenido Mister Marshall! (Welcome Mister Marshall!) (1952)
Novio a la vista (Boyfriend in Sight) (1953)
Los jueves milagro (Miracles on Thursdays) (1957)
El verdugo (The Executioner) (1963)
La boutique (The Boutique) (1967)
¡Vivan los novios! (Long Live the Bride and Groom) (1969)
Tamaño natural (Life Size) (1973)
La escopeta nacional (The National Shotgun) (1978)
Patrimonio nacional (National Patrimony) (1980)
Nacional III (Nacional Highway III) (1982)
La vaquilla (The Heifer) (1985)
Moros y cristianos (Moors and Christians) (1987)
¡Todos a la cárcel! (Everyone to Jail!) (1993)
Carlos Cañique and Maite Grau, ¡Bienvenido Mr. Berlanga!, Barcelona, Destino, 1993
Juan Cobos, José Luis Garci, Antonio Giménez Rico, Miguel Marías, Eduardo Torres-Dulce, “Berlanga: Perversiones de un soñador”, Nickel Odeon, 3, Summer 1996, pp. 36-150
Steven Marsh, “Villar del Río Revisited: The Chronotope of Berlanga’s ¡Bienvenido Mister Marshall!”, Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, 2003 forthcoming
Steven Marsh, “Populism, The National-Popular and the Politics of Luis García Berlanga” in Antonio Lázaro Rebollo and Andrew Willis (eds.), Spanish Popular Cinemas, Manchester University Press, 2003 forthcoming.
Francisco Perales, Luis García Berlanga, Madrid, Cátedra, 1997
Julio Pérez Perucha (ed.), En torno a Luis García Berlanga, Valencia, Mitemas, 1999
Compiled by Albert Fung
European Coordination of Film Festivals
Brief information on Plácido. Includes images.
Luis García Berlanga
A few films on DVD and video can be purchased here on this Spanish site.
- See Marsh, “Populism, The National-Popular and the Politics of Luis García Berlanga,” in Antonio Lázaro Rebollo and Andrew Willis (eds.), Spanish Popular Cinemas, Manchester University Press, 2003 forthcoming
- Sainete is a form of popular Spanish theatre generally set in urban circumstances, often in the city of Madrid. It is distinguished by its choral qualities, its archetypal characters and its episodic structure. It is widely agreed that it has had a significant influence on the evolution of Spanish cinema. See Juan A. Rios Carratalá, Lo sainetesco en el cine español, University of Alicante publications, 1997.
- “The film had a lot of problems with censorship, a lot of things were cut and they even went so far as to shoot additional sequences to replace those that were cut.” Berlanga interviewed in ¡Bienvenido Mr. Berlanga! by Carlos Cañeque and Maite Grau, Destino,1993, p. 126.