WELCOME, MR. MARSHALL! (Luis García Berlanga, 1952)

“I will not put up with any irony.”

Sharply written by the director, Luis García Berlanga, along with Juan Antonio Bardem and Miguel Mihura, ¡Bienvenido Mister Marshall! is a film from Spain whose hectic satirical comedy, especially given its lively, dense scenes of humanity, somewhat resembles Preston Sturges’s Hollywood films. (Fernando Rey’s calm voiceover narration acts for us as a buffer.) It centers on Villar del Río, a small town sparked into anticipation of the visit by U.S. officials charged with determining recipients of post-World War II European recovery funds under the Marshall Plan. Can Spain, with its sitting brutal dictator, have any hope of lassoing any funds? Perhaps a masquerade will help; the inhabitants decorate their town, costume themselves and hire whom they must, including a celebrated flamenco dancer, to project an image that might ingratiatingly hoodwink their guests. Franco’s Spain must not appear to be Franco’s Spain.
     Apparently all the jabs targeting the United States kept Franco and those around him from seeing how they also were being gored by García Berlanga’s film.
     Early on, there is a lovely visual joke supposedly engineered by the narrator. A freeze frame keeps one of the townsfolk burdened by the heavy sack he is shouldering—until the narrator apologizes and releases him from the freeze frame so that he can put down the sack. The symbolism is striking and devious: the burden of Francoism requires the intervention of magic—cinema, perhaps—to remove it.
     García Berlanga’s uneven, even grab-bag film, however, doesn’t come into its wickedly brilliant own until a late series of important townsfolk dreams midwived by American movies. In one of these, a nightmare, the local priest imagines himself surrounded by anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klansmen—this, after he had earlier condemned the U.S. for its rampant sin, for instance, divorce, and too many Protestants. (Ironically, he and the KKK share racist sentiments.) The town’s verbally challenged mayor dreams he is a mute sheriff, who though he can’t keep his hand from shaking is involved in an Old West barroom shootout.
     Best film, Spanish critics.


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