THE EXECUTIONER (Luis García Berlanga, 1963)

Franco’s Spain: two young persons, Carmen and José Luis, discover they have similar romantic problems: boys flee Carmen when they learn that her father has been an official executioner for decades; girls flee José Luis upon learning he is an undertaker. The pair become lovers and, once Carmen is expecting José Luis’s son, a married couple. Meanwhile, Carmen’s father, Amadeo (José Isbert, show-stealing), who is fast approaching retirement, pressures his son-in-law to become his replacement. Other pressures include available housing and economic necessity; but the boy has a problem: he wouldn’t kill a fly.
     Luis García Berlanga’s raucous, fast-talking and very funny dark comedy El verdugo was cheekily mistranslated in the U.S. as Not on Your Life!. It won Berlanga the prize of international critics at Venice.
     As it proceeds, the film gets funnier and funnier. (Low blow: Carmen, pregnant, waddling in heels.) Amadeo’s and the warden’s rationalizations for the humanity of what they do are priceless; in effect, the ruling thug, Franco, dictates “the norm.” The occasion of José Luis’s first execution is hilarious: inside the prison, an angled overhead shot finds two clusters of people each dragging someone else to the execution room, José Luis and an equally reluctant prisoner, with the priest abandoning the latter in order to bolster the courage of the former! Once both groups have passed through the door in the background of the shot, we are left with a long blank wall: with powerful symbolism, the obliteration of one man’s soul and another man’s life. The swipe at the barbarous nature of state capital punishment is clear; but does Berlanga risk an implied condemnation of Franco in particular? For the pertinent context, consult the 1939 story by Jean-Paul Sartre “The Wall” (“Le mur”).
     From Spain and Italy.

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