Javier Tolentino

A Bad Spaniard who Fabled with Austro-Hungarian Stories

Of all the definitions and labels Luis Garcia Berlanga has been given, the one I like best is the one Franco apparently gave him: “A bad Spaniard”. Because, out of the three great film makers of Spanish cinema, Luis Buñuel, Víctor Erice and Luis García Berlanga, the least presentable one is Berlanga. The least presentable one? I mean that he was the least presentable one because if there was a quality which defined the author of “Plácido”, it was that he presented himself through a constant denial, a wish to live in the universe of comedy to move away from drama, to move away from it and also to make it more bearable, a criticism of the humbleness which has been hardly taken into account in the identifying marks of the Spanish culture. The way we are has historically been related to other ways and audacities; Berlanga wanted to portray other, more Spanish, assumptions and less mundane adherences: an epic, erotic, burlesque, mischievous, contradictory, anarchist, tavern goer, fetishist, anticlerical and pleasure seeker Berlanga.

Whereas Luis Buñuel was the Spaniard in exile and the author of “Veridiana” and “Belle de jour”, both exhaustive essays about human behaviour, and Víctor Erice was the difficult, quiet and baroque, intellectual and calm, caustic and elusive film maker who directed “El espíritu de la colmena” (The Spirit of the Beehive”), one of the highest points of Spanish cinema, Berlanga proposes and portrays himself from less significant assumptions. They are more Mediterranean, more festive and, especially, with more sex and more spicy.

A lot has been said and written about the Berlanga of the Blue Division, of the civil war (I think the Unamunian term of uncivil war is more appropriate) of the Russian steppes, of the cold and how there and from there, his letters and his diary are proof of it, there is already a filming intention and how his style comes about, his Austro-Hungarian universe. That’s why he has already made up his mind when he puts his foot in his country again and he will not wait until the world war ends to join the Institute of Cinematic Investigation and Experience of Madrid. It is 1947 and the Berlanga film maker starts to take shape. The man who would, of course, make the most genuine Spanish cinema, with more identity and, especially, with stories which remind us of our expressive forms in all the arts: Góngora and Quevedo, Sorolla and Picasso, Pepe Isbert, Lola Flores, Pedro Almodóvar, Antonio Mingote, El Roto, Edgard Neville, Laly Soldevilla, José Luis Sazatornil and, especially, Luis Ciges. But let’s not deceive ourselves, all that Spain portrayed by Berlanga hid a powerful structure, an outline of Russian montage, script and planning style, the product of the obsessive Berlanguian order for the masters from the East: especially, Kulechov and Eisenstein.

I have talked about Ciges, and this unforgettable actor really personified on his own everything that Berlanga always expected from the seventh art: humanity, sourness, sadness, greyness, with bitter endings and very attached to life, of Don Quixote and Sancho, or is Ciges not an excellent Berlanguian Quixote or a good Sancho? And isn’t Ciges like a short Fernando Fernán Gómez? Don Luis has said a hundred times that his problems with the Francoist censorship made the dictatorship laugh rather than making it angry, which is what he really wanted. However, I don’t believe so. We should think, instead, that the old regime can’t have been very happy with the films and situations we saw in “La vaquilla” (“The Heifer”) or “La escopeta nacional” (“The National Shotgun”), both metaphors of a festive, old-fashioned, good-for-nothing country. Part of that talent and that genius was also responsible for the obvious delay in the recognition of some of his films. For example, that shot of the small paper flag of the United States which goes down the sewer is said to have prevented him from getting the Golden Palm for “¡Bienvenido, Míster Marshall!" (“Welcome, Mr. Marshall!”) because it enraged the American section of the panel.

Luis always moved away from the hero wake. We have heard him say many times that his relationship with the Blue Division was to mitigate his father’s death penalty. He had more problems with censorship than he ever confessed . After the success of “El Verdugo" (“The Executioner”) in Venice there came a long period of prohibition and masked veto for him to make films. Berlanga was never ever heard to rely on explicit political criticism against the didactorship, he found it more interesting to use a "reductio ad absurdum” of the type: “A good butt plays a more important role than any ideology”.

Talking about Berlanga means digging into the depths of a country which speaks with the broken voice of José Isbert, with the typical-Spanish demeanour of José Luis Ozores in “Calabuch”, with the pathetic ignorance of a country which hides its scholars at the back of the class, with a vulgar aristocracy represented in a Luis Escobar who accepted money and became secretly corrupted, with a cassock and beret clergy capable of slapping someone if José Luis López Vázquez reminded them of the Rota Tribunal, with the screw Michel Piccoli had with a Spanish woman like Concha Velasco. Exactly as Buñuel immortalized, “without religion sex is much less interesting”. Evoking Berlanga means calling the identity of a people, the Spanish people, whose analysis comes of age with “¡Bienvenido, Míster Marshall!”, from “Calabuch” to “Plácido”, from “El verdugo” to “Tamaño natural” (“Life Size”), from “La escopeta nacional” to “París-Tombuctú” (“Paris-Timbuktu”), without forgetting other precedents as important as “Esa pareja feliz” (That Happy Couple”), written by none other than Juan Antonio Bardem, Miguel Mihura and Luis García Berlanga.

There has not been a more fierce criticism of the Spain of the dictatorship than Berlanga’s films. An obscure, pathetic and ignorant people, a bad country capable of adoring de Virgin and selling it at the same time, an anticlerical and catholic country, an administrative, civil servant, festive Spain which portrays itself in “El Verdugo”, in that conversation between the candidate and the newspaper seller, “if you are my recommendation, you cannot back out, understand?”. Berlanga was inexorable when showing the loneliness and ignorance, the cockiness and defeat, the bitterness and cruelty of the Spanish as a people. If there is anything to save these cursed villages of Calabuch, Miraflores or Guardamar, metaphors of the deepest Spain, is precisely the fact that Berlanga tells the story. The real portrait of the Spain of Luis García Berlanga, the chrysanthemum seed inseminated by the beast, and probably with great difficulties to get out of this labyrinth without professional help.

The Master was often labelled as chaotic and disorganised, but that is not true. His filmography has been defined by order and coherence. “This is my last rocket”, the wise scientist in Calabuch said. However, his last work of art sleeps in coffer no. 1034, in a safe deposit at the Caja de las Letras of the Institute Cervantes, which was closed on 27 May 2008. Its contents cannot be revealed until 12 June 2021, date of the film maker’s centenary.

What is inside? Nobody knows, perhaps Berlanga’s last joke. Some type of sarcasm, an irony, a pair of stilettos or directions to get out of Calabuch.

The dictator said that Berlanga was a bad Spaniard, because those who execute, kidnap, mutilate and castrate a whole country are not bad. Berlanga was not good because he pointed at our truth, because he told us what they had turned us into, what they made us believe and what they took away from us. “I worry about people. My films are an accurate reflection of the people I have met and the reality I have lived. I like life, so I don’t feel like leaving. I confess I am afraid. It is a brutal fear. Life, at the end, is not a comedy”.

Javier Tolentino, 2012