Thursday, 8 March 2012

Random Viewing: Classic Edition


   This blog concentrates on cinema from the 1990s onwards, but I've recently been watching a series of older films and thought that I may as well include them in the Random Viewing thread.
   First up is La escopeta nacional / The National Shotgun (Luis García Berlanga, 1978). Berlanga is a key figure in Spanish cinema (and a strong influence over a range of filmmakers of different generations) but seemingly little-known outside of Spain (in terms of the UK, his films have not been released here). I had previously seen one of his earliest films, ¡Bienvenido, Mister Marshall! / Welcome, Mister Marshall! (1952), which I enjoyed very much, and I have copies of two of his other classics (Plácido (1961) and El verdugo / The Executioner (1963) (not watched yet)) but it's quite difficult to get hold of his other films. I have discovered that some of them are available to stream (without subtitles) at Filmotech, so I'm going to work my way through them. La escopeta nacional is the first part in a comedic trilogy (followed by Patrimonio nacional / National Heritage (1980) and Nacional III / National III (1982)). This first part is set during the dying days of the Franco regime and is a send-up of the bourgeoisie at play; a hunt (a recurring motif in Spanish cinema, in part because it was one of Franco's past-times) on the estate of a somewhat unhinged aristocratic family is the backdrop for familial backstabbing, political power plays and various other grotesqueries, seen through the eyes of a Catalan businessman (José Sazatornil) who just wants to make the connections to enable him to develop a new kind of door-entry intercom. One of Berlanga's cinematic traits is the use of large ensembles (with the attendant overlapping dialogue) and there is a brilliant range of faces onscreen here, including José Luis López Vázquez, Luis Escobar, Amparo Soler Leal, Luis Ciges, and a very young-looking Chus Lampreave (a recurrent figure in Almodóvar's films). I imagine that many references went over my head as I'm not overly familiar with Spanish society of this period, but the broader references and skewering of the hypocrisies of authority hit their target. Expect the next two parts of the trilogy to make an appearance on here in the future.
   Berlanga's first feature (Esa pareja feliz / This Happy Couple (1951)) was co-directed with Juan Antonio Bardem -and it was one of Bardem's key films that I watched next. Muerte de un ciclista / Death of a Cyclist (1955) opens with the titular death as a couple hit a cyclist while driving in the countryside. Fatally, they decide not to offer assistance (the cyclist is still alive when they stop) and flee the scene as they (María José -played by Lucia Bosé- and Juan -Alberto Closas) are having an affair and do not want to expose their relationship. The event impacts on them in the same way -it reveals their true natures- but with different results: Juan, a university professor, is tortured by guilt and finding the political idealism of his youth reawakened decides that the 'right thing' would be turn themselves in; but the shallowness of María José is revealed as it becomes apparent that she will protect her social status (she is married to an important man) at all costs and shows very little concern about the life that she ended (she was driving). Throw in a blackmailer (played with a wonderful Peter Lorre-esque sliminess by Carlos Casaravilla), who may know less than than he insinuates to María José but is close enough to her husband to cause problems, and the tension amps up to Hitchcockian proportions. The film is an effective suspense drama (will the police catch them? will their affair be exposed? how will they deal with the blackmail?) but Bardem also manages to make social commentary by highlighting the gap between rich and poor without turning the film into a political treatise. Muerte de un ciclista has received the Criterion treatment in the US but predictably is unavailable in the UK -although there does seem to be a region 2 Spanish disc. I watched it on Filmotech and it is well-worth seeking out. It is beautifully-shot and certain scenes are strikingly (and memorably) composed. I also liked the ambiguity of the final image. 

From the opening sequence of Muerte de un ciclista

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