The Criterion Collection Review | The Executioner
Thanks to my consumption of the films of Luis Buñuel and Pedro Almodóvar – not to mention my recent review of the Spanish-set Trilogía de Guillermo Del Toro – I feel that I am now relatively conversant in the movement and tonal idiosyncrasies of Spanish cinema. The conclusion I now hesitantly and humbly draw is that Spanish film is largely – with the perfect level of demonstrative intent – to be read as satire. Each of the Spanish films I have seen plays like a soap opera spoof of a well-established Spanish social injustice, most often stemming directly from the Franco administration.
The Criterion Collection has managed to unearth Luis García Berlanga’s 1963 realist-spoof-cum-satire called The Executioner (a.k.a. El Verdugo, a.k.a. Not on Your Life) which may be the sharpest Spanish satire I have yet encountered. This is a bold statement in light of my familiarity with Buñuel. In its home country, The Executioner is considered one of the nation’s most significant films. It is not well-known in America. Having seen it, I can only encourage people to seek it out. It has some of the darkest wit I have seen in a film, evoking the works of Voltaire or Ambrose Bierce. There’s certainly a note of Kafka in there, in that an innocent man becomes lost in an amoral bureaucracy that is feeding on the people.
The Executioner pokes fun at the middle-class distractions of a citizenry that doesn’t want to acknowledge that they are themselves complicit in the nation’s crimes. There is a deep, deep streak of political cynicism running through The Executioner, a streak which you may not notice until the film’s emotionally harrowing final 20 minutes, as until then, it plays like one of the world’s driest comedies.
José Isbert plays an aging executioner for the state as a befuddled old man who is only trying to make ends meet. We don’t see him working. His daughter (Emma Penella) is having a secret affair with a young man named José Luis Rodríguez (Nino Manfredi), which soon becomes not so secret. Eventually the two marry. Their domestic explorations sidle right up to the realm of the TV sitcom. We have scenarios of married couples stressed out about their days, worrying about their kids, and all the while straining against their relationship with a crazy in-law. This is a wry, more painful, more European version of The King of Queens.
Oh yes, and did I mention that Rodríguez is expected to take his father-in-law’s job when he retires? He is expected to become an executioner. There is a strange gallows humor to that punchline, of course, but by the time it comes, the humor-of-discomfort has slowly transformed into just plain discomfort. A lot of the humor and desperation of the film can be found on Manfredi’s face. His jaunty hat and worried visage evokes a combination of Bob Denver on Gilligan’s Island and Bryan Cranston on Breaking Bad. This is a story of banal, aggressively plain, unadorned human life being casually interrupted by an efficient state system that demands death. It’s every blue-collar worker’s worst nightmare.
But I mentioned that the satire was not demonstrative, and The Executioner doesn’t play as broad or as obviously pointed as something like, say, Brazil. It has its point to make, but it’s going to first make you wade through a painful, sometimes frantic, sometimes funny, but ultimately grueling realist drama about getting by in life. The banality of the main characters lends the satire a casual universality that allows it to play to any modern audience in any country.
The Executioner, despite all of its comedic characteristics (which don’t necessarily make it funny, per se) may also prove to be a vital discussion point in any conversation about state-sanctioned executions. If you support the death penalty, then this film asks very aggressively: What happens to the man who performs the execution? And how long can you work that job before it becomes just another ordinary job? The Executioner is potent meat disguised as a baloney sandwich.
Top Image: The Criterion Collection
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.