Home Video Hovel: The Executioner, by David Bax
Luis García Berlanga’s The Executioner is a dark comedy, all the darker for the fact that it doesn’t, on the surface, feel like one. It’s sunny and frothy, with a predilection for mild physical comedy. But make no mistake, this is a heady yet farcical look at what it means to take another human’s life.
Nino Manfredi stars as José Luis Rodríguez, whom the film designates an “undertaker” but is really more of a driver for the coroner’s office. He and his cohorts pick up the recently deceased and deliver them to the morgues or what have you. As morbid as it sounds, these bodies are already bagged or boxed by the time José shows up, making his daily interactions with death clinical almost to the point of being hypothetical. After one pick-up, though, at a prison, he happens to befriend Amadeo (José Isbert), the executioner who ended the man’s life only moments before. José is uncomfortable and superstitious but, upon driving Amadeo home, still manages to become infatuated with his daughter, Carmen (Emma Penella). In short order, Carman is pregnant, Amadeo is retiring and, in order to hold on to their comfortable, government-subsidized apartment, José becomes Amadeo’s successor as Madrid’s official executioner.
Most of the comedy comes from José’s discomfort and occasional moral panic at the thought of having to do his new job. It’s a joy to observe his bumbling self-justifications but it’s also a clever dissection of how we all get by as citizens belonging to an unethical system. Most of the time, José is able to put his worries out of his mind, especially as the increased paychecks and bourgeois perks like travel expenses keep rolling in.
José’s friends and family have an even easier time putting the particulars of his line of work out of their minds. Essentially, they cut him out of their lives. It’s harsh but it’s no different than what we Westerners do every day, enjoying the benefits of living in a modern civilization while turning a blind eye to the ugly side of what keeps it all running. It’s funny, really. But it’s not.
Criterion’s release is the result of a new 4K transfer and, reportedly, hours of dirt removal and the like. It shows. The picture is crisp and sharp. The mono sound mix is also clear and coherent (or seems to be; I don’t speak Spanish).
Special features include an interview with Pedro Almodovar, a featurette on Berlanga featuring his friends and family, a 2012 Spanish television featurette on the film itself and, in the booklet, an essay by David Cairns.