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The history starts with the main character (an old executioner in the Spain of early 60's) approaching retirement age. As his profession is not exactly what you could call "popular", he (a very gentle and nice man, caring, and proud of traditions) begins to worry about who might take his place when he retires. He has a daughter, but, unfortunately, she seems doomed to perpetual "spinsterhood": as soon as any prospective groom learns about her dad and her dad's "trade", he runs away from her, scared. A sad life... However, a new character enters: the local undertaker, a handsome and young man who has exactly the same problem... No girl wants him given his profession. So, you have the woman whom almost nobody would marry and the man whom almost nobody would marry. Obviously, they are meant for each other. But here the old executioner has something to say: He does not object to her daughter marrying the young undertaker; he seems a decent man, and all that... But there is a condition: ... Written by
Jose Beltran <firstname.lastname@example.org>
An unknown comical masterpiece which uses humour to denounce the death penalty
Luis García Berlanga's El Verdugo (The Executioner) was recently named the second greatest Spanish film of all time yet it still remains unknown to many non-Spanish people. Perhaps the reason it's so unknown is due to the fact that it was released during the Spanish dictatorship lead by General Franco and this did not permit it to get an international recognition and viewing. Whatever the reason, it's a pity that this little treasure of a film can not get the international recognition it deserves. It's one of the great black comedies I have seen, a fierce yet hilarious critique on the death penalty. Berlanga's inspiration is Franco's regime which practised it, but it has a universal appeal.
Filled with memorable gags, the story starts with Jose Luís (Nino Manfredi), an undertaker who is thinking of moving to Germany to become a good mechanic. In love with Carmen, daughter of Amadeo (José Isbert), an executioner, he is one day discovered by her father during there moment of intimacy and is forced to marry her the undertaker marries an executioner's daughter. Jose Luís is faced with economic difficulties and the urgent need to create a new home for his new wife. The only way of solving this problem, it seems, would be accepting his father in law's offer (Amadeo): to take the vacant place of executioner Amadeo is leaving due to retirement. Only this way will he get a home. Under pressure from his surrounding, Jose Luís accepts the job convinced that he will never have to put it into practise. Life goes on pleasantly in his new home until one day he receives the feared telegram: he must execute a convicted man.
The story, filmed in a black and white photography that feels so fresh, sounds serious because below the comical surface, lies not only the serious subject matter of death penalty but also the wide spread pessimism caused by Franco's regime. Director Berlange could have chosen to tell the story as sad drama but he doesn't: in a way, he is laughing at the absurd logic and inhumanity he feels the death sentence is. The film's true brilliance lies not in the wonderful all around performances, but in its screenplay that takes on a comic tone that is apparently inoffensive to condemn an action that is just as inhuman as those committed by the executed. And the great irony is that the executioner goes through much worse emotionally than the executed in a great sequence. The movie looks with amusement at the idea of how those who execute can go on there days with a calm conscience. But don't get the wrong idea, El Verdugo does not portray the condemned as victims it is not interested in there guilt or innocence. The only victims, it suggests, are those that accept to practise inhumanity under the name of justice. There are so many brilliant comical sequences that have nothing to admire from the exhausted and cheap comedies we get from many of the films nowadays.
This is a film that will certainly be less appealing to those in favour of the death penalty. For those who do not which to dwell on such a subject can look at it on its simplest level, which is that of a first rate comical masterpiece.
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