You could say that The Executioner (1963) is a one-joke comedy and that the joke isn’t funny. This sounds like a death sentence for any movie, but in fact it’s the key to why Luis García Berlanga’s film is so wonderful. The whole story is devoted to a single absurd yet perfectly credible premise, a joke aimed at society and the human condition, delivered deadpan with a pace more funereal than farcical. The thrust of what we see happening isn’t funny at all—the best comedies are always about deeply serious things—and only little decorative bits of personal vanity and folly from the characters provide amusement. But all the while, the joke is waiting to spring, the banana peel is closer with every step, the custard pie approaches through the air like a looming pastry of fate, as slowly and implacably as a cannon shell seen through the eyes of its target.
The Executioner has the narrative structure of a garrote, not incidentally the preferred method of execution in sixties Spain (preferred by whom?). We’re in position. The wire ring is around our neck, but we can’t feel it at first. Little by little, it tightens. We begin to feel its coldness when we swallow. Now, it starts to pinch, the skin of our throat wrinkling in its unyielding clasp. Breath becomes difficult. Are we laughing yet?
I first heard about this film from a Spanish student of mine who reported having seen it on TV without warning. She vividly described the agitation it provoked: it was billed as a light comedy. It behaved like a light comedy. The characters in it were characters out of light comedy, but they seemed a little disturbed to find their lives not quite heading in that direction. A subtle unease crept in. By the time the film reached its funny but horrendous conclusion, she knew she had seen something special, a jet-black, grueling, mordant social statement in the guise of entertainment.
Since I crave weird cinematic sensations, I quickly found an opportunity to see The Executioner myself. It lived up to the pitch. The feeling the movie creates, that under a sunny surface something is very badly wrong (it’s a situation comedy in which the situation is fatal), is exactly what it is about. Most of the comedy is about claustrophobia, oppression, people getting on each other’s nerves, things not working out—fairly normal for a comedy. Maybe the sense of walls closing in is a little more intense in this one, a little like in the comedies of Vincente Minnelli, which always seem to make you want to crawl out of your skin. But it’s the underlying dread of becoming implicated in something horrible, where even your loved ones will collude rather than help you escape, that makes the story play more as Kafkaesque nightmare than sitcom premise.
Spanish cinema has a feeling for the big, bold metaphor, brazen yet somehow undeclared. Buñuel was the master of it, wherever in the world he happened to be shooting, but Antonio Mercero’s horrifying short La cabina (The Telephone Box, 1972) is perhaps the greatest example. A man gets caught in a phone box; the end. But it’s an end that’s stretched out, agonizingly, giving us time to reflect: are we not, all of us, trapped in a phone booth?
In The Executioner, a man, José Luis Rodríguez (Nino Manfredi), is similarly trapped: in marriage, fatherhood, and being a professional killer. Something like that of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, his existence becomes a series of painful compromises that aren’t really compromises because he never gets even a little of what he wants. What society wants, it seems, is for him to kill.
A story as specific in its details as this one can intrigue with its finely crafted, exotic realism, but it really connects only if it contains a Universal Truth, and I would suggest that, in the case of The Executioner, that truth is that we are all forced to participate in societies that make us guilty of murder—by paying taxes, by supporting the system through whatever work we do, by not actively opposing the state’s many, many crimes. As a product of General Franco’s fascist Spain, The Executioner has special significance in this regard—and Berlanga had been from the beginning a master of veiled, acidic satire—but as a product of Western civilization, it has a more general one as well.
Unlike most fascist dictatorships, Spain was something of a center of international film production (Franco had no ambitions for world conquest, which made his reign tolerable to the post–World War II international community), with Hollywood regularly beating a path to its door. Cheap labor was one attraction, good weather and varied scenery another, and Franco’s insistence that profits from American films screened in Spain had to be spent within his borders cemented the bond: studios funneled the trapped pesetas back into making movies. The Executioner references Charlton Heston’s visit to shoot El Cid (1961) and managed to attract Italian coproduction money and talent, including cowriter Ennio Flaiano, a regular Fellini collaborator, and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, a few years before his work in spaghetti westerns immortalized the Spanish landscape.
Here, Delli Colli’s contribution is felt most in cramped interiors, where his camera cranes its neck around obstructive corners, nosing into confined spaces and catching action through doorways and down halls. Since the film is always as interested in what surrounds the hero as it is in the protagonist himself, this prying, restless movement, constantly shifting our attention and making us aware of those overhearing, spying, or discussing events the plot focuses on, becomes a vital part of Berlanga’s social commentary. There’s no privacy, either from the camera or from the supporting cast. And rather than a country in which the masses are united in a common goal, Berlanga shows bickering, gossip, officiousness, and selfishness run riot, as if, robbed of self-determination, everyone gets what satisfaction they can from watching and judging their neighbors. The ultimate in pettiness comes when the young lovers dance at a picnic spot to the sound of someone else’s transistor radio—and the radio is switched off because its owner objects to others enjoying his sounds. You can’t appreciate that moment without seeing the film as a kind of vision of hell, albeit a hell composed mainly of venial sins. But they stack up, those sins . . .
The Executioner’s use of comic claustrophobia is exemplified by its depiction of the happy home our hero finds for himself, funded by the state executions he hopes never to perform. When first seen, the place seems spacious, but only because they haven’t put the walls in yet. The building site becomes a place of dreams, skyline subdivided by girders. But when we see the completed home, a mattress is being delivered, an activity that, as we know, can turn the most spacious apartment into an infuriating obstacle course of perspiration and barked shins. The camera, planted in the main room, can see into the communal stair and father-in-law Amadeo’s bedroom, while a small adjustment allows it also to glimpse the marital bedroom, where the mattress is being lugged. So the dream home, the object of all our struggle, becomes another trap, a compartmentalized panopticon, a prison devoid of privacy. As José Luis tries to have a quickie with his wife in their room, Pops, calling from his own room, tries to distract the baby in the kitchen. Everybody is forced nose deep into each other’s business. Then the telegram arrives . . .
José Luis as reluctant potential executioner provides the movie with suspense and a variety of promising comedic avenues, each of which it darts down only briefly. There’s José Luis the peacemaker, trying to settle any argument that looks like it might end in violence, just in case somebody ends up on death row, compelling him to go to work. There’s José Luis the ghoul, rejoicing that the man he has been sent to kill in Majorca is ill, thus postponing the execution indefinitely and financing a luxurious holiday for José Luis and his family. But the movie’s run time is now also a countdown, and our hero’s slightly manic happiness whenever the evil day is postponed has a whiff of denial. Memento mori—remember you must die, yes, but don’t forget you must also kill.
Berlanga and his cowriters—most prominently his longtime collaborator Rafael Azcona—maintain believability while constantly bashing reality up against absurd incongruity. In Majorca, the Land Rover collecting José Luis for his appointment at the penitentiary joins a celebratory motorcade transporting Miss World nominees. José Luis is paged while attending a tourist show at an underground lake, a megaphoned voice booming across the Stygian waters like something from a Gothic fairy tale.
This realism and absurdity are also maintained by the adept cast. Manfredi, an Italian star, has an openness as José Luis that convinces us of the character’s innocence, a quality just short of outright dumbness. He’s attractive but still an everyman. He can argue his case with passion, while still appearing fundamentally weak. Not that we can see how a stronger man might fare any better.
And Emma Penella brings a sympathetic reading to the role of his wife, Carmen, a character who could be seen as a monster of selfishness if you analyzed her closely. Of course, she loves her husband and family, but the idea that he might actually have to kill someone just doesn’t seem to mean that much to her: she sees his reticence as a kind of pitiable personality quirk, like a fear of flying. But then, she’s the daughter of an executioner, raised to see judicial murder as an everyday business.
Berlanga’s lethal weapon in the cast is the wizened José Isbert as Amadeo, Carmen’s aging executioner father, a croaking death bird. Isbert, who had been in movies since 1912, is such a startling presence, shrunken and hunched, saggy and rasping, that you’re at first shocked simply to find this crumpled gargoyle ambulatory, and then you get to be astonished all over again by his comic skill. Every second he’s on-screen, his timing and force of personality gain a strange fillip from our anxiety that one of the film’s main actors might actually kick the bucket while we’re watching.
Berlanga had used Isbert before, in his debut solo film, ¡Bienvenido, Mister Marshall! (1953), a charming, almost Ealing-like small-town comedy with a sharply satiric undertone about international aid that got it denounced as anti-American by none other than Edward G. Robinson at the Cannes Film Festival. Berlanga had a genius for casting: one can’t imagine anyone better in the role of the executioner, not even Edward G. Robinson, who would have been pretty good. (Berlanga’s 1974 Grandeur nature/Life Size is about a man who falls in love with a blow-up sex doll. He cast Michel Piccoli. Think about how perfect that is: Piccoli’s hypermasculine size and hairiness make him a surprising choice; his sensitivity enables him to make us take the idea seriously. Creepiness is in no way dissipated, but it’s developed in all kinds of different directions.)
At The Executioner’s end, the absurd juxtapositions reach a crescendo. José Luis, summoned to prison, tries to argue his way out of killing a man. But he’s dressed as a tourist and has been provided with both a cigarette and a glass of champagne, undercutting his attempts to make a very serious point. Once his arguments have been quashed, and his bid to quit this terrible job dismissed as inhumane toward the condemned man, an attempt is made to transform him into a more dignified official by putting a necktie on him. The prison director is played by Guido Alberti, best known as the producer in Fellini’s 8½, an actor practiced in persuading protagonists to carry out onerous, soul-endangering work, whether it be state execution or the making of motion pictures.
As a final absurdity, Berlanga stages his most epic shot, in the chalky-white prison courtyard where the man condemned to die walks stoically toward his death, while the man condemned to kill him is inconsolable, occupying the attention of the guards and priest, playing to perfection the role of a man being led to his death. The reversal of attitudes is grimly hilarious, but the wide, institutional space gives laughter an unsettling echo. They say tragedy is close-up and comedy is long shot, but Orson Welles observed that when the camera pulls back still farther, a distant figure surrounded by empty space becomes once more tragic in its isolation. That’s José Luis here, as he’s led off through the dark doorway.
And then the bitter aftermath, where we learn that Amadeo too swore never to kill again after his first time. And we know how that turned out. José Luis’s whole future can now be seen, a line of corpses-in-waiting stretched before him. Faced with this horror, Berlanga resolves the film the only way he can, by maintaining the ironic distance and the pretense that this is all just a pleasant comedy: he pans from the family on a ferry with José Luis to another boat, where everyone seems to be having a really good time.
As Kafka cheerfully put it, “There is infinite hope, but not for us.”
David Cairns is a critic and filmmaker. He blogs at Shadowplay and teaches in Edinburgh.
Thanks to Natalia Caballero.