|Luis García Berlanga front left and Juan Antonio Bardem centre, on the set of Esa pareja feliz. Picture taken from the Berlanga Film Museum website|
"[Spanish cinema] is politically ineffectual, socially false, intellectually poverty-stricken, aesthetically-void and industrially stunted" - Juan Antonio Bardem, 1955
"Berlanga is not a Communist, he is something much worse: he is a bad Spaniard" - Francisco Franco, allegedly (quoted in Marsh 2006: 122)
The 28th Leeds International Film Festival is currently offering a joint retrospective of the two directors - who trained at film school together - concentrating on the early stages of their careers (effectively their key films made during the dictatorship) but also including a few films made by later generations of directors who can be said to have cinematic links to Berlanga and Bardem - Víctor Erice's El espíritu de la colmena (1973), Carlos Saura's Cría cuervos (1976), and Pedro Almodóvar's Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto? (1984).
Although he co-scripted Bienvenido Mr Marshall!, arguably Bardem is somewhat shortchanged by the selection of films - the absence of Calle Mayor / Main Street (Juan Antonio Bardem, 1956) seems a glaring omission. Perhaps Berlanga's films from the period have better withstood the passing of time, their sharpness not dulled one iota (I say this having seen very few of Bardem's films). But Bardem's public criticisms of the cinema made in Spain - and his political commitment (which saw him jailed during the dictatorship - he was a member of the Communist party) - are addressed and / or echoed in the form and content of films made by Erice and Saura. The surprise is perhaps how much Berlanga and Bardem got past the censors - although their films were censored, they still seem pretty blunt in their criticisms of the regime and the Establishment - although maybe the metaphorical style of Erice and Saura (with which I'm more familiar) was a case of filmmakers learning from the postwar generation and cloaking their critique in a layer of opacity (although they still had their fair share of battles with State censorship).
Another connection across the years is Fernando Fernán Gómez, represented here as an actor in Berlanga and Bardem's joint directorial debut Esa pareja feliz (made in 1951 but not released until 1953) and El espíritu de la colmena, but he also worked with Saura (Ana y los lobos / Ana and the Wolves (1973), Mama cumplé 100 años / Mama Turns 100 (1979), and Los zancos / The Stiltwalkers (1984)) and Almodóvar (Todo sobre mi madre / All About My Mother (1999)). He is little known beyond the Erice film in the UK, but he was a colossus of Spanish cinema (he died in 2007) with a long and varied career both in front of and behind the camera (he had 212 credits as an actor and 30 as a director (the majority of which were also written by him)) - should I ever finish the Carlos Saura Challenge (hahaha...), I wouldn't mind investigating the films he directed.
Although his films satirise social issues and regularly skewer the Establishment (both during and after the dictatorship), Berlanga had a more complicated political background than Bardem - Berlanga's father was a Republican who was jailed after the Civil War, at which juncture the future director joined the División Azul (a volunteer regiment sent by Franco to fight alongside the Germans on the Russian Front during World War Two), but he would later officially become 'an enemy of the regime' after the gathering known as the Salamanca Conversations in 1955 (the occasion of Bardem's infamous statement at the top of this post).
Almodóvar's films more obviously connect with those of Berlanga (although Bardem repeatedly returned to Almodóvar's favoured genre of melodrama) - while Berlanga's work often depicts a realistic social milieu, the humour taps in to Spanish traditions of costumbrismo (effectively a series of stereotypes relating to the rural and working classes, not to be taken as realistic, which took on an ironic edge from the 1950s) and esperpento (in which a distorted version of reality is utilised in order to critique it), which can also be discerned in some of the films by the man from La Mancha (and also those of the other Spanish director who has a retrospective at Leeds - Álex de la Iglesia (who I will write about next week)).
Both Berlanga and Bardem had long careers - the former directed his last feature in 1999, the latter in 1998 - so there are plenty more of their films to explore if the retrospective piques your interest.
I will add links to the respective reviews of the films listed below as and when they go online.
- Esa pareja feliz / That Happy Couple (Luis García Berlanga & Juan Antonio Bardem, 1953)
- Bienvenido Mr Marshall! / Welcome Mr Marshall! (Luis García Berlanga, 1953)
- Muerte de un ciclista / Death of a Cyclist (Juan Antonio Bardem, 1955)
- Plácido (Luis García Berlanga, 1961)
- El verdugo / The Executioner (Luis García Berlanga, 1963)
- El espíritu de la colmena / The Spirit of the Beehive (Víctor Erice, 1973)
- Cría cuervos / Raise Ravens (Carlos Saura, 1976)
- Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto? / What Have I Done to Deserve This? (Pedro Almodóvar, 1984)