- Berlanga, Luis G.
- (1921- )Among the key Spanish auteurs, Luis G. Berlanga's greatness as an artist and his place in Spanish cinema are the hardest to convey to foreign audiences. Some specialists have claimed his sense of humor is "too Spanish," his world too reliant on culture-specific traditions like costumbrismo and sainete. In his own country, he has remained the most admired of directors for his wit, his keen eye for human behavior, and his mastery in building up complex plots using many characters. His professional trajectory has also become iconic of Spanish film history: although never a card-carrying communist (leaning more toward "sensualistic anarchism," as he would claim), his skill for caricature and his lack of respect for convention made him into the filmmaker most mistrusted by censors during the Franco period, to the point that he remained largely inactive in Spain after El verdugo (The Executioner, 1964).Luis García Berlanga was born in Valencia, to a Republican family, and from the start, this was a shadow hanging over his relations with the authorities. Still, rather than resentment and a confrontational stance, his work evidences an ironic attitude and a deep mistrust for any kind of power structure. After the Civil War, his father was sent to prison, and he joined Francoist forces to fight on the side of the Nazis at the Russian Front in order to make good with the regime. He studied philosophy, and painting was his first artistic vocation, but soon he turned his attention to film criticism; he spent much of his time frequenting literary cafés in his hometown, an activity which is an obvious source of inspiration in his work.Berlanga took a directing course at the Instituto de Investigaciones y Experiencias Cinematográficas (IIEC), starting in 1947, the year of the film school's foundation. As an early admirer of neorealism, he took inspiration from everyday life, although always with a gentle sense of humor and empathy that balanced the often grim experiences of his characters. This was apparent in the first feature he co-directed with Juan Antonio Bardem, Esa Pareja Feliz (That Happy Couple, 1951, but not released until 1953), starring Fernando Fernán Gómez, a film that distributors found difficult to place in cinemas but that was well received by selected professionals.He was invited to direct ¡Bienvenido Mr. Marshall! (Welcome Mr. Marshall! 1952) on his own (it was going to be a collaborative effort again, but Bardem begged off after co-writing the script). This film follows the inhabitants of a small Castilian village who pretend to be Andalusian to ingratiate themselves with Marshall Plan representatives. It remains one of the key titles in Spanish film history: at a time when films had turned their backs on reality (the late 1940s had been characterized by big CIFESA epics), Berlanga dealt with real dreams of real people and with the frustrations of everyday life. A similar outlook is present in his next film, Novio a la vista (Finacée Ahoy! 1954).In 1955, together with other directors, Berlanga publicly deplored the state of Spanish cinema at the Salamanca Conversations, stating the need to create discussion groups in order to circumvent official obstacles and set up a solid film industry. Such outspokenness at a time of tight government control turned against him, and he became officially an "enemy of the regime." Although he was not, he could not be, explicitly critical in his stories, his films were closely studied for signs of dissidence and censored throughout the 1950s. Calabuch (1956), a gentle story about a Mediterranean village in which a nuclear scientist seeks refuge, was a return to Mr. Marshall's outlook and themes. Los jueves milagro (Miracle Each Thursday, 1957), his next film, was more problematic because, in the line of some Federico Fellini films of the period, it seemed to satirize religious rituals. It was rendered almost incomprehensible by censors, and similar obstacles were encountered with each successive film. Plácido (1962), his first collaboration with Rafael Azcona, was made at a moment in which the authorities were trying to appear as moderate and was relatively untouched by censorship in spite of its critique of false middle-class charity; but El verdugo, made two years later, came in the wake of the Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, 1961) scandal and suffered numerous cuts and hindrances. Winning the FIPRESCI prize at Venice elicited the wrong kind of attention, and the government did all it could, short of banning it, to bury it; it was consequently little seen for decades. It remains one of the most powerful indictments of the regime and is often regarded as one of the greatest Spanish films.Over the next 10 years, as Berlanga became internationally respected, he worked very little in his home country; he was closely watched and was unable to finish a project he could rightly claim as personal. ¡Vivan los novios! (Hooray for the Marrying Couple! 1970), one of his greatest films was yet again scarcely seen by Spanish audiences. Finally, he moved to France, where in 1973 he shot Tamaño natural (Natural Size), a strange tale of erotic obsession in which a man develops a fascination with an inflatable doll. Eroticism, pornography, and fetishism had been personal hobbies to Berlanga, but he had been unable to give free rein to this kind of imagery under Francisco Franco. Offbeat sexual habits appeared as a trademark in films of his later career.Berlanga returned to regular filmmaking after Franco's death with the successful "Nacional" series: La escopeta nacional (National Shotgun, 1978), Patrimonio Nacional (National Heritage, 1981), and Nacional III (National III, 1982), a series of satirical multicharacter films in which he criticized political attitudes during late Francoism and the Transition. In 1977, he became a lecturer in the Escuela Oficial de Cine (EOC, as the former IIEC was renamed), became president of the newly founded Filmoteca nacional, and was involved as a series editor for an erotic literature collection with Tusquets publishers. With his reputation well established, he received numerous tributes and honors. In 1987, he became honorary president of the Academia de Artes y Ciencias Cinematográficas de España. In 1980, he was awarded the Premio nacional de cinematografía and, in 1986, the Príncipe de Asturias de las Artes award, one of the highest forms of institutional recognition for artists in Spain.One key title of his post-Franco period was La vaquilla (The Heifer, 1985), based on a script he had written with Azcona 20 years earlier, in which Berlanga claimed he was seeking to overcome the division that the Civil War had caused. His career in the 1990s was irregular: he continued to satirize social issues in films like Moros y cristianos (Moors and Christians, 1987) and Todos a la cárcel (Everybody to Prison, 1993), but with a less malign enemy to confront, his critiques were losing their edge as his traditional antagonists seemed to have vanished. His last film, Paris Timbuctú (1999), was a return to the location and some characters of Calabuch, a fitting self-referential farewell to filmmaking with a typically strong cast.
Historical dictionary of Spanish cinema. Alberto Mira. 2010.