El Verdugo: A Film Classic
Exposing the Franco Regime
El Verdugo is a film directed by Luis Garcia Berlanga, a famous director who exposed the negative effects of the Franco regime in Spanish cinema. As a youth, Berlanga studied philosophy, but he eventually decided upon a different path. His movies have often showed the world with a sense of tragic irony, using dark humor. In the manner of Italian neo-realism, he sought to expose the lack of social mobility in Franco's Spain, showing all the dark aspects of life that weren't otherwise revealed in the mainstream media of the time.
Jose Isbert plays the executioner, Amadeo, an older man ready to retire and pass down his trade to a successor. He meets a young undertaker named Jose Luis, played by Nino Manfredi. When Jose takes Amadeo home, the execetioner invites him in for coffee. There, Jose meets the daughter of Amadeo, Carmen, played by Emma Penella. Carmen has the difficult predicament of being undesirable for marriage because of her father's occupation. Jose has had the same problem because of his job as an undertaker. As the three have coffee, there is some romantic chemistry between Jose and Carmen. Jose then begins to spend more time with both Carmen and Amadeo. Jose has a crowded living situation in a small flat with his brother Antonio and welcomes the opportunity to spend more time with Carmen.
Soon, Jose and Carmen are having a romantic affair. However, Amadeo does not know about it at first. When Amadeo does find out, he appears angry and upset. A few days later, Jose learns that Carmen is pregnant. Jose, who always dreamed of becoming a mechanic in Germany, at first suggests that perhaps he will go to Germany and Carmen can join him when he is settled. But this does not happen. Instead, he decides to move in with Amadeo and Carmen, and Amadeo ultimately convinces Jose to succeed him in his job as an executioner. Jose is at once horrified and reluctant to agree, but Amadeo persuades him, insisting that criminals are always pardoned right before they are executed.
Many dark jokes about killing and executing are made, mainly by Amadeo, who appears cheerful and good-natured for someone with such a disturbing career. Jorge eventually agrees to be an executioner when they learn that Amadeo cannot get a flat with his retirement pension for the three of them, and the baby, to live in. Carmen and Jose seem to be hoping that they are beginning a new and better life, but the film takes a dark twist when Jose gets his first assignment on the island of Mallorca. At first reluctant, Jose becomes downright terrified of what he has to do. When he arrives at the prison to execute the condemned man, he pleads and panics, nervously showing the prison guards pictures of his family. He wants to escape the responsibility. He wants to get out of having to kill someone. In a dramatic climax, Jose is dragged against his will into the execution chamber.
Social classes in Franco's Spain were extremely controlled and fixed. It was very difficult to change one's station in life. Likewise, Jose cannot break free and live his own destiny. As an undertaker, he dreamed of a better life in Germany as a mechanic, but he ended up doing something far worse as an executioner. (textbook). However, the movie is a bit strange and even deceiving. A dark subject is treated in a comical and light-hearted drama for most of the movie. In some ways, the humor hides the dark truth the same way the Franco regime hid the dark realities of 1960s Spain. Amadeo appears to have no major psychological disturbances. He is friendly and likeable. This may be Berlanga's way of showing how some members of 1960s Spanish society are numb to the larger role they are playing.
The film won best picture at the Cannes film festival in 1963. Along with the work of Bardem, Berlanga helped awaken the world to the harshness of Spanish society in the time of Franco. It would be easy for a modern viewer to miss the social impact the film had at the time, to simply see the film as a dark comedy. But it applied to very real problems in Spain in the 1960s. It's an interesting mix of bitter irony and tragic comedy, and it helps any viewer understand better the culture of Spain and the development of Spanish cinema.