Sunday, December 18, 2011

SCN: More films from Luis García Berlanga EVERYONE OFF TO JAIL, PLÁCIDO and WELCOME, MR. MARSHALL! A suggestion regarding NYC's Instituto Cervantes.

The ten-film retrospective of the work of one Spain's best but least-known (outside his own country) filmmakers continues apace, as the FSLC's tribute to Luis García Berlanga at the Walter Reade Theater unveils yet more treasures from the archives. TrustMovies has not been able to see quite as many of the ten as he'd originally hoped, but he caught up with three more over the past week, one of which -- the hilarious EVERYONE OFF TO JAIL (Todo a la carcel) -- will screen for the public this coming Wednesday, December 21, at 8:30pm.

For those of us (like me) who imagined that Berlanga took on only the satirizing of the Franco years, Everyone Off to Jail proved a welcome surprise. This writer/director's penultimate movie, made in 1993, turns its ferociously funny lens on modern-day Spain, post-Franco maybe, but venal as hell and every bit as deserving of ridicule and laughter. In this no-holds-barred decimation, literally everyone involved is looking for his or her best chance -- whether it's via installing a toilet or copping a fast fuck from one of the pro-Batista Cuban dancers performing at Valencia Prison in a program scheduled for a holiday honoring political prisoners.

This ripe situation is played out like a slapstick ballet with the action (and the laughs) never stopping. In the starry Spanish cast everyone stands out, but the late Manuel Alexandre maybe more than most. This fine actor (Elsa & Fred), with 235 credits on the IMDB, plays a feisty old prisoner intent on getting that fuck, and he's a delight. The movie won the Goya for Best Picture and Best Director the year of its release. For my money, it holds up very well.

With PLÁCIDO, from 1961, we're firmly back in Franco-land, on a sad, grey (black-and-white cinematography) Christmas, as a number of events conspire to make life miserable for our put-upon hero, the title character. We get a real dose of the Spanish holiday culture of the time, with the Sisters of Mercy in action and the well-off Spanish citizenry bringing home a poor person for a Christmas dinner. Concurrently, there's an unpaid bank draft to deal with plus a trainload of very suspect "movie stars" coming into town for a TV giveaway of some then-popular "pressure cookers."

Hypocrisy, always a favorite Berlanga target, is all over the place here, residing not only in the hearts and minds of the wealthy, but also in a middle-class full of silly verbal bromides, and in the poor, who, like all the rest, seem to have major trouble prioritizing. This ability to dole out responsibility to all who deserve it is one of the filmmaker's strengths, resulting in movies that are humane but rigorous.

WELCOME, MR. MARSHALL! (named for the fellow who came up with the post-WWII Marshall Plan) has long been one of Berlanga's most popular films. Now that I've finally seen it, I can understand why. Made in 1953, it was also one of his first. Featuring an opening few minutes that are surprisingly stylish, funny and even quite modern in their ironic distance on the subject at hand, the movie tells the story of what happens to a small, out-of-the-way village and its inhabitants after the authorities tell it to get ready for a visit from the Americans -- whose Marshall Plan was helping to renovate post-war Europe.

Of course, the villagers have their own "take" on what this means, and in their wishes and especially in their dreams/nightmares of what these American "gifts" might mean, the movie comes alive in some very bizarre ways (the KKK, anyone?). No less a liberal American actor than Edward G. Robinson was said to be made apoplectic by the film's supposed anti-Americanism. Seen today, the film seems unusual, certainly, but considering all that's happened in the years since it was made, there are now so many other reasons to be anti-American that anything we see here appears a rather paltry excuse.

For a time, in the first two-thirds of the film, it seemed to me that Berlanga was showing us, in his own quiet but firm manner, some of the "gray" life of Franco's Spain that Alberto Morais told us about in his recent interview. But then, as Berlanga wraps things up, perhaps in a nod to the powers-that-were, his movie declares that, oh, well, these fine folks are, at bottom, really just good Spanish citizens, after all. For me, this weakens what otherwise might have been a smart, dark satire. But Berlanga could only go so far during this particular period of Franco's dictatorship. It will be interesting to see what he does with some of his later movies....


A note to New York readers who might want to see these Berlanga films but have already missed some of the screenings: The New York chapter of the Instituto Cervantes (IC) has a terrific library full of DVDs of Spanish-language movies classic and new -- including, I believe, all or most of the films of Luis García Berlanga (and often some of the more popular of the preceding year's Spanish Cinema Now series). Located in Manhattan's lovely Amster Yard, IC offers a membership (TM gets the reasonably-priced $35 senior deal) that allows you use the library free-of-charge and to check out any of these films. You will need an all-region DVD player, however, as most of the DVDs are PAL rather than NTSC and so can be viewed only on European DVD players. Many (though not all) of the IC's films also come with English subtitles.

View the entire remaining Spanish Cinema Now series 
by clicking the above link.

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