Berlanga made his directing film debut in 1951 with Esa Pareja Feliz (That Happy Couple), written and directed in collaboration with Juan Antonio Bardem.
Berlanga and Bardem were to become two of the main representatives of the so-called Spanish film dissidence, a movement of ideological and political opposition to the monolithic culture imposed by Franco’s regime. Later in his life, Berlanga ironically declared that to a certain extent Bardem and himself could be considered the originators of censorship in the Spanish film industry, since nobody before them had ever tried to include in their films anything which could challenge the dominant power.
Due to the fierce control and censorship of the dictatorship, filmmakers had to choose seemingly harmless genres as vehicles to convey their subversive messages. While Bardem opted for the somehow atypical lavish melodrama, most notably in his extraordinary Muerte de un Ciclista (Death of a Cyclist) and Calle Mayor (High Street), Berlanga chose the Costumbrism comedy.
His first masterpiece was Bienvenido Mr. Marshall (Welcome Mr. Marshall!, 1952), a film that convincingly depicts Spain’s isolation in Europe after WWII. In a desperate attempt to impress the American diplomats visiting the country in order to benefit from the Marshall Plan, the inhabitants of a little Castilian village dress up as Andalusians and hire a flamenco singer and dancer in the hope of meeting the foreign expectations. The Andalusian culture and folklore was, in fact, the stereotype Franco’s dictatorship had been trying to export as only national culture. By using the stereotype as vehicle of social criticism (the desperation of a country willing to give up its identity in order to break its isolation), Berlanga succeeded not only in evading the censorship but also in mocking one of the generally accepted film subgenres of the time (película con tonadillera or film featuring a female folk singer), precisely through its immersion in it. The end of the film, which I won’t reveal here in case someone has not seen it yet, is as bitter and hopeless as Spain’s political situation in the aftermath of its own Civil War and WWII. The scene of the welcoming song, whose lyrics were written by writer Miguel Mihura, is part of Spain’s film collective memory. (Text continues after the clip)
After some years of interesting work, including the religious satire Los Jueves, Milagro (Miracle on Thursdays, 1957), he teamed up with Rafael Azcona, arguably Spain’s greatest screenwriter ever, with whom he was to create two of the indisputable masterpieces of Spanish cinema: El Verdugo (The Executioner, 1963) and Plácido (1961), my personal favourite and the only one of his films to be nominated for an Oscar.
In these two films he set the unmistakable Berlangian style: long takes, collective scenes with overlapping dialogues, black humour… The very specific cultural context, the idiosyncrasy of the humour and the exuberance of the dialogue (often overwhelming for the subtitles) were all elements that contributed to the relative mild impact of his films out of Spain.
The following scene of Plácido perfectly sums up this highly personal style. The origin of the film’s flawless script is a brilliant idea based on a real motto devised by Franco’s regime: siente a un pobre a su mesa (bring a poor man to your table) on Christmas’s Eve so that they (the poor) can feel the warmth and affection of a real home at least once in their fife. Subtly mocking the idea, the film constitutes a blunt attack on the concept of Christian charity. (Text continues after the clip)
Berlanga developed his style in the national trilogy: La Escopeta Nacional (1977), Patrimonio Nacional (1981) and Nacional III (1982). He enjoyed his biggest commercial success with La Vaquilla (1985), a satire about the Spanish Civil War. He remained active until the end of the century, but he never recaptured the freshness and brilliancy of El Verdugo or Plácido. It is hard to say that he was Spain’s finest director, not least because Spain is the homeland of filmmakers like Buñuel, Bardem, Saura, Erice or Almodóvar, but he was certainly the most Spanish of all the great Spanish film directors.