Even among dedicated English-speaking cinephiles, the name Luis García Berlanga might not immediately spark a glimmer of recognition.
The great Pedro Almodóvar, who ranks Berlanga up there with Luis Buñuel among Spanish filmmakers, offers a few theories why in his brief appreciation on the Criterion Collection’s newly released disc of The Executioner (El Verdugo). One possibility: Berlanga’s films often feature extended scenes of overlapping dialogue — some have likened him to proto-Robert Altman — which can be tricky to subtitle.
Whatever the reason, Berlanga’s films have had basically no representation on Region 1/A home video up to this point, so Criterion’s release of The Executioner is plenty exciting in that regard. Despite a marked turn toward more major US studio titles (many of which direly needed new editions — this isn’t a complaint), Criterion has continued to demonstrate a commitment to shining light on neglected filmmakers.
So, it’s an exciting release. Is the film any good? Well, it’s doubtful it will revolutionize anyone’s view of Spanish cinema made under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, though the film’s style is kind of fascinating.
The Executioner is like a farce playing at half-speed; its situations have all the requisite absurdity, but the jokes just sort of sit there, waiting to be discovered instead of getting in your face. It’s a subtle — though not always that funny — approach to comedy, but Berlanga’s anti-death penalty message is anything but subtle.
Nino Manfredi stars as José Luis Rodríguez, an undertaker who’s reasonably satisfied with his job, but who’s stuck living in a cramped apartment with his brother’s family. His romantic prospects are dim — no one is all that interested in getting close to an undertaker, he observes.
Manfredi perfectly captures José’s passive ineffectuality, and it isn’t long before he’s stumbled into a potential new life. After getting a ride from the local executioner Amadeo (José Isbert, whose cavalier defense of the brutal garrote as the official instrument of death is the film’s most caustic moment), he meets Amadeo’s daughter, Carmen (Emme Penella), also unlucky in love for similar reasons.
The ensuing courtship isn’t so romantic — José’s one overt gesture quickly fizzles when two strangers take offense to the couple dancing to the music from their radio — but hey, it’s something different for the pair.
José has clearly crafted a life based on taking the path of least resistance, but that plan is put in jeopardy by the forced retirement of Amadeo. If José doesn’t take over the job of executioner, the three will lose their government-provided housing.
The Executioner sags in its middle section, repeating gags about close domestic confines and reiterating José’s neuroticism about possibly getting called in to end someone’s life.
But Berlanga picks it up for a final act that maintains the same deliberate pacing, but generates a sharp payoff for the inevitability that’s been awaiting José this whole time. Berlanga switches from his usual medium shots to a long shot of a stark white room, and finally, it feels like the satire draws blood.
Criterion’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is sourced from a new 4K digital restoration, and the black and white film looks fantastic, with abundant levels of fine detail, perfectly supported grain structure and excellent clarity. Damage is essentially nonexistent. There are several dropped frames in the film’s first scene, but this apparent elements issue doesn’t affect the rest of the film. The uncompressed mono soundtrack has a fairly persistent white-noise hiss throughout, but is clean otherwise.
In addition to the aforementioned Almodóvar interview, which feels criminally short at under four minutes, Criterion offers two much more substantial extras: a newly recorded hour-long doc on Berlanga’s career that acts as an excellent primer, and a 2009 episode of half-hour Spanish TV show La mitad invisible that takes a deeper look at The Executioner. A trailer and an insert with an essay by critic David Cairns are also included.