Responsibility, whether for the menial task of helping to move a coffin or the much greater burden of executing a man, motivates every scene of The Executioner to some degree. At the start of the film, José Luis (Nino Manfredi) lugs an empty coffin into a blank-walled government building where Amadeo (José Isbert), the state’s executioner, has just finished his final duties before retirement. Upon finally seeing Amadeo for the first time, José Luis comments that, if they met in a café, he’d never suspect from looking at Amadeo that he’s an executioner. Director Luis García Berlanga plays the hired hand’s line to highlight his naïveté; apparently, José Luis imagined a more nefarious person than Amadeo, maybe even a grim-reaper type. He never imagined that death’s hands could belong to a chipper, little old man, much less his own.
That spark of recognition triggers José Luis’s unlikely course to become the new executioner; he marries Carmen (Emma Penella), Amadeo’s daughter, and subsequently takes the job so that Amadeo may keep his beloved apartment, which he’ll lose without familial relation to a state employee. The scenario would be outright satire or even farce were its details not more akin to realism in both their dehumanizing logic and the arbitrary, but still meaningful, string of coincidences that make José Luis heir to the garrote.
The film’s upbeat tone and narrative structure suggests a comedy of errors, as if José Luis’s predicament were a momentary loosening of society’s stable structure rather than a comprehensive indictment of a broken system. Berlanga’s maintenance of an underlying comedic edge gives The Executioner a thoroughly discomfiting quality, especially as José Luis’s responsibilities to end a stranger’s life become a certainty near the film’s end.
Apart from the gradual reversal of comedic promise, Berlanga’s directorial hand is remarkable for its navigation of glances and hesitations, especially among the three leads. When José Luis and Carmen first meet, neither of them verbalizes their attraction to one another, though it’s especially apparent in Carmen’s eyes, which Penella plays with superb simplicity. Their relationship isn’t one of immediate chemistry or even amorous infatuation, but a recognition that the other person affords each of them an opportunity to enmesh themselves within the respectability of marriage, and thus disappear into the anonymity of any greater cultural responsibility.
In fact, Berlanga’s sleight of hand is already underway from the first frame, as José Luis remains a background figure until tasked with returning Amadeo’s briefcase by a senior employee. Moreover, the first glimpse of José Luis obscures him behind the coffin he’s carrying. In hindsight, Berlanga’s deliberate visual choices become clear: José Luis’s entire adult life is composed of dissolving into or hiding behind something to avoid being made a figure of responsibility. It’s only after Amadeo finds him in Carmen’s bedroom that the pair are married; instead of claiming liability for his actions by refusing accusations of wrongdoing, José Luis opts for marital confinement just to avoid a confrontation or subversion of any sort.
Berlanga proffers these narrative turns as consistently understated formations within a Franco-ruled Spain, a place where individual and institutional authority are reconcilable entities so long as a certain set of underlying, core values remains intact. Berlanga and co-screenwriter Rafael Azcona deliberately omit representative figures of greater governmental organizations, rendering José Luis’s endpoint a seemingly natural occurrence within the greater structures of Spanish society.
However, that sense only holds up if the viewer ignores Berlanga’s meticulous use of mise-en-scène, which, as in Bicycle Thieves or I Vitelloni, encodes the isolating strain of personal responsibility within towering structures that are fundamentally designed to strip human beings of any communal bonds. When José Luis, Carmen, and Amadeo look at the apartment of Amadeo’s dreams, it’s a high-rise clone of actual luxury—a simulacrum of class mobility that’s no more nourishing than the cone of ice cream José Luis sullenly holds later in the film as he prepares to sign his livelihood away.
The 4K resolution scan on the Criterion Collection's Blu-ray is a work of art unto itself. From front to back, every frame of Luis García Berlanga's film has been restored with precision and care (there are no signs of damage or debris), and without compromising either the color scheme or spatial dimensions of any scene or shot. The monaural soundtrack is crisp, efficient, and freed from defects throughout. Along with I Knew Her Well, this ranks at the apex of Criterion's 2016 releases in terms of bringing a previously unavailable film back to voluptuous, vibrant life.
A solid, if sparse, assortment of supplements. The most notable is an hour-long documentary featuring critics, writers, and Berlanga's son explaining the filmmaker's significance to Spanish cinema. Although mostly unknown in the U.S., Berlanga is a well-known figure in Spain and even has a phrase ("Berlanga-esque") to refer to situations where "chaos seems miraculously organized." By taking an overview, the doc serves as an efficient starter kit for Berlanga's filmography, while also explaining some of the director's perspectives on filmmaking; Berlanga views "black humor" less as a deliberate aesthetic choice than an often unexplored facet of realism. The line between truth and fiction in Berlanga's films is explored in a half-hour featurette that revisits some of the locations where The Executioner was shot. Also, Pedro Almodóvar provides a very brief assessment of The Executioner by pinpointing Berlanga's "gushers of verbiage" as his defining trait. Rounding out the disc's extras is a trailer and essay by film critic David Cairns.
Luis García Berlanga said The Executioner was meant to depict "the invisible traps that society sets up for us," but fortunately everything else is visible in Criterion's luminous, 4K treatment of the filmmaker's macabre satire.