The Executioner The Criterion Collection
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This masterpiece of black humor, beloved in Spain but too little seen elsewhere, threads a scathing critique of Franco-era values through a macabre farce about an undertaker who marries an executioner s daughter and reluctantly takes over her father s job so the family can keep their government-allotted apartment. As caustic today as it was in 1963, this early collaboration between Luis García Berlanga (Welcome, Mr. Marshall!; Plácido) and his longtime screenwriter Rafael Azcona (El pisito, Belle Époque) is an unerring depiction of what Berlanga called the invisible traps that society sets up for us. A furiously funny personal attack on capital punishment, The Executioner escaped the state censors who sought to suppress it, and today is regarded as one of the greatest Spanish films of all time.
BLU-RAY SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES
- New, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
- New interview with filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar
- New program on director Luis García Berlanga, featuring interviews with his son José Luis Berlanga; film critic Carlos F. Heredero; writers Fernando R. Lafuente and Bernardo Sánchez Salas; and director of the Berlanga Film Museum Rafael Maluenda
- Spanish television program from 2012 on The Executioner, featuring archival interviews with Berlanga
- New English subtitle translation
- PLUS: An essay by film critic David Cairns
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*Plot and ending analyzed*
I remember when I first saw the Executioner, it was in Spain in 1965. I was working as a stuntman in Spaghetti Westerns. It's a peculiar film, I don't think of it as so much a straight out Comedy, but more of a Comedy of social interaction. Remember, the brutal dictator Francisco Franco was in power at the time, thus they had to be quite subtle. There are hilarious scenes throughout; I kept thinking to myself there's plenty of grumpy people about in it, which makes it quite commendable and hilarious because you find them in the real world. The type of people who tell you to move or get away from a desk in some store or office, or people who make rude comments for no reason.
The Executioner starts out with two guys who work at the morgue, picking up a stiff at the local prison who's just been executed. They see the prison executioner, who is an old man and the young morgue guy wants to avoid him because of the stigma involved. The old man executioner forgets his workbag. Well, the young morgue guy turns in his workbag to his apartment home and meets up with his daughter. They eventually get together and have a baby and get married. In order for them to have a residential apartment, the young morgue guy has to sign up as a executioner to get state benefits, but he's reluctant since it creeps him out so much.
Eventually the prison calls him up to perform, and there's the crux of the matter. At that time, prisoners were executed by means of a garrote. It's like a metal harness and used to strangle a person.
I thought the ending deviated a bit from my own expectations, but still, it wasn't terribly off. The Executioner might put off some audience expectations because it is a garrulous film. It gets tedious at times, but still pulls in above average. I liked the little jokes and comments made by rude people in the film. I don't think it was really a critique of the death penalty in my estimation, but one may be able to look at it in that manner.
If you like foreign films, it's definitely worth a watch. One note, the synchronicity of the audio and the actors' mouths doesn't match, I don't know if it was just made that way or dubbed later with inept equipment. The film was an Iberian and Italian co-production, so maybe they were speaking Italian.
There's not many extras, just a few and a booklet.
La caza (1966)
Calle Mayor (1956)
Welcome Mr. Marshall! (1953)
Ensayo de un Crimen (1955)
From that point the undertaker is pulled into becoming the executioner's successor by every method of control that society has—woman (the executioner has a pleasant, earth-mama daughter who no one wants to date because of what Dad does), economics (they can finally get an apartment in a modern new building on the edge of Madrid—if someone holds the job), bourgeois pleasures (a trip to an execution in Mallorca becomes a vacation for the whole family), morality ("He's already made his penance. If there's a delay, he could slip back. Don't you want him to die in a state of grace?") He's the real condemned man, being led to his fate as the guy who will make the fascist system which everyone cooperates with really work, doing the brutal work that is its ultimate end, its guarantor of power. This comedy of social embarrassments is wonderfully sly at taking all the tropes of the capital punishment genre and twisting them into comedy over the poor unwilling executioner.
The film is handsomely shot in black and white, with a vivid sense of the smallness of life in backward Spain at this time, and a cast full of people you don't recognize, but have the lived-in believability of movie veterans, which I'm sure they are. (The old man, Jose Isbert, had a career going back to 1912, and worked until 1975 in over 100 films.) It's not a visual masterpiece, but it looks very nice in Criterion's pristine transfer. There are a few extras, mostly TV shows dealing with the career of the director, who is apparently a beloved figure in Spain if little known outside it. I wonder what else he made that's good?