Tuesday, October 4, 2011


The image is murky at a resolution of only 240 dpi, but you can see the late Luis Garcia Berlanga's prizewinning comedy about capital punishment on YouTube with English subtitles thanks to the site's closed-captioning feature. El Verdugo ("The Executioner," also known as "Not on Your Life") is regarded as Spain's greatest comedy, if not its greatest film altogether, by many national critics and film buffs. I was first made aware of it when Dave at Goodfella's Movie Blog named it his favorite film worldwide of 1963. When you consider the competition -- Kurosawa's High and Low, Visconti's The Leopard, Fellini's 8 1/2, just for starters -- that's a high honor, and I resolved to find a way to see the film someday. The day came yesterday as I was doing my year-by-year searches for free rarities on Google Video, and despite the poor picture quality there were many moments that impressed me pictorially. Berlanga stages some remarkable set pieces: a bargain-basement church wedding in which the bride and groom practically trip over the people picking up the carpeting and other amenities from the previous, more lavish wedding; the summoning of the protagonist from a crowd of tourists in an underground lagoon to be carried away in a rowboat as if he was crossing the Styx; and the climactic death march that states the theme of this gently though blackly comic story.

Our hero is an undertaker, Jose Luis Rodriguez (Nino Manfredi), who picks up a victim of capital punishment -- in Spain at the time, the method was garroting -- and briefly crosses paths with el verdugo himself, a mild-mannered seeming old fellow (Jose Isbert). Jose ends up falling for the executioner's daughter, whom old Amadeo is eager to marry off, since the traditional stigma of the executioner extends to the family, making Carmen (Emma Penella) a poor prospect despite her pleasant personality. However, Amadeo isn't above setting conditions. He has his retirement to look out for, and his chance to land a decent state-run apartment depends on his finding a successor in his socially-useful position as an executioner. He cajoles a reluctant Rodriguez into signing on as his successor while promising him that capital cases almost always end with a reprieve or pardon. That may be true, but until a stay of execution is granted, the executioner has to remain on call near the prison where the con is kept. Once another criminal is sentenced to death, Rodriguez is in a constant state of moral panic, despite his mentor's reassurances, and Berlanga's ingenious reversal, conceived with writer Rafael Azcona, reveals itself. Rather than the prisoner, it's the apprentice executioner waiting desperately for news of the reprieve and fainting on the way to the death chamber while the condemned man strides stoically on.

The idea of El Verdugo is brilliant, and that shines through even as I'm sure I miss a lot of the dialogue's subtleties through the minimal but competent captioning.  Beyond Jose Luis Rodriguez's personal dilemma, the overriding theme, certainly a provocative one in a country ruled by a fascist dictator, is complicity and the complacency that conceals it from people in oppressive circumstances. Society demands an executioner, but people pretend that no one actually has to work the garotte, and the one who finally has to do it finds himself the loneliest man in society, despised when not ignored. At the same time, he can't see things the same way anymore, as Berlanga illustrates with a closing shot of a boat party carrying on obliviously as Rodriguez sorrows over his deed and Amadeo commiserates as best he can, informing his son-in-law that he felt the same after his first time. The situation could easily be expanded into a satire of everyone's complacent complicity with the order provided (or merely promised) by dictatorship, and the Franco regime indeed protested the film's premier at an international film festival, though it was duly released in Spain itself the following year. While the concept is a stroke of genius, the film as I saw it is a little low-key for its exalted standing among Spanish film buffs -- which may only mean, as I've suggested, that something is lost in translation. Still, given that exalted standing in a nation with a rich cinematic tradition (my own call for greatest Spanish film would be Victor Erice's Spirit of the Beehive), El Verdugo should be better known and more widely circulated in the U.S. than it seems to be. In any event, antolintinez has uploaded that captioned version to YouTube, and the curious can start their discovery there.

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