Septegenarian Don Anselmo Proharan, a retired government minister, finds himself sharing living space with his son, a penurious, bourgeoisie solicitor and his family. Don Anselmo, a widower, is restricted to one room of the house, and his social life has narrowed to attending wakes, funerals, and visiting the cemetery. When his paraplegic friend Don Lucas, gets a motorized wheelchair, Proharan accompanies him to his wife's grave to leave flowers. Don Anselmo soon becomes obsessed with getting his own "little coach" and joining the subculture of other "cochetito" owners. However when his tight-fisted son refuses to buy one for him, the old man tries several gambits to get one. Written by
Despite a long and prolific career, Marco Ferreri is not as well known outside his native Italy as contemporaries like Fellini and Antonioni. His anarchic, iconoclastic vision of the world and bizarre, often surreal humor may be the reason. Although on the surface this early film initially seems grounded in the Neo-Realist tradition of DeSica's "Umberto D," it carries a bittersweet subversive theme that would become increasingly apparent in Ferreri's later work.
Jose Isbert plays Don Anselmo Proharan, a retired government minister who has ceded his home to son Carlos, an officious, condescending solicitor, his bourgeoisie wife, and Yolanda, their homely daughter. Carlos' law offices, which he shares with his daughter's ambitious fiancé, are also located on the premises, so Don Anselmo is limited to a single confining room. As he also has to share space with Yolanda, the old man has no sense of peace and quiet or privacy. In addition, Carlos has control of his father's pension, which he parsimoniously doles out as a parent would a child, further restricting the old man's freedom. Ferreri emphasizes this with very effective traveling shots that follow the old man around the house's constrictive, almost claustrophobic, corridors.
Don Anselmo's only escape seems to be attending funerals, and when friend and fellow widower Don Lucas asks him accompany him on a cemetery visit, he readily agrees. The paralyzed Don Lucas has recently gotten a motorized wheel chair, which soon becomes an object of fascination to the elder Proharan.
He soon is introduced to the subculture of the "cochecitos" as the motorized wheelchairs are called. Their owners congregate outdoors in open spaces and, despite their handicaps, have achieved a sense of independence, camaraderie, and self-reliance that the septuagenarian finds exhilarating and liberating. Among those that he meets are Julita, a crippled sketch artist, her quadriplegic boyfriend, and Alvarez, the philosophic guardian and caregiver to the mentally retarded son of a Marchioness. However, in order to become part of this new surrogate family, Don Anselmo needs his own "little coach."
Like Toad in Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind in the Willows," Don Anselmo's becomes obsessed with owning one and regaining his lost dignity. Because his tight-fisted son dismisses his requests, the ambulatory old man fraudulently orders a wheelchair from a medical supply house and falsely claims orthopedic infirmity to a doctor.
In desperation, he sells his late wife's jewelry, which Carlos and his wife have already earmarked for their daughter, to buy his own "cochecito." His outraged son humiliates him by reclaiming the gems and demanding the return of chair. He berates his father and vows to institutionalize him in an asylum, which delights Yolande, who is only too eager to co-opt his room. His self-esteem shattered, a desperate Don Anselmo poisons his family's food and, like an disaffected teenager, runs away from home. The film ends ambiguously with many issues left unresolved.
Ferreri directed his early films in Spain, and Don Anselmo's repression by his bourgeoisie family might be interpreted as a quietly subversive allegorical criticism of Franco's fascist military dictatorship. It is very revealing that in the opening scene Don Anselmo sees a surreal line of men marching in a military fashion armed with mop handles and wearing a toilet bowl on their heads. Conversely the last scene has the old man being arrested by the iconically uniformed Guardia Civil.
In any case, Ferreri left Spain for his native Italy after the release of "El Cochecito" and soon received some international critical acclaim for trenchantly scathing social satires like "The Ape Woman" and "The Conjugal Bed."
Ferreri would return to the theme of aging with dignity in "The House of Smiles" nearly three decades later. Ferreri has been quoted as saying that his job as director is to give the audience a "punch in the stomach." "El Cochecito" is a punch, albeit a gentle one.
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