Learning a new language can open windows to an entirely new world of arts, culture and literature. I have been tremendously benefited from learning Spanish. One of the things I have discovered is wonderful classic Spanish cinema. I will always be indebted to my Cinema expert friend Raúl, for introducing me, among many other facets of world cinema, to the wonderful world of Luís García Berlanga.
Last year José Luis López Vázquez passed away. Last month we lost Manuel Alexandre and now the sad demise of Berlanga! Three doyens of the previous generation of Spanish cinema have died recently. Berlanga in his own right is the most important director of Pre-Almodóvar generation in Spanish Cinema and according to some critics, the best Spanish director ever. Today, Pedro Almodóvar is the face of Spanish Cinema internationally. But he could hone his skills and express himself in a democratic, modern and economically growing Spain. Berlanga didn’t have that luxury. Berlanga had to show his art during an era of Franco’s totalitarian regime, when freedom of expression was probably limited. Probably that need to voice his ideas and severe limitations thereon, taught Berlanga the art of subtlety. That’s what makes his movies so special. He was not someone who wanted to shout out loud, his anger, frustrations and complaints. He was someone who just wanted to whisper. Yes! He just wanted to whisper. That was his forté. Subtle messages – stark realities wrapped in the cloak of simplicity and satire. He was a wizard of whispers.
I am just supposing that it was restriction and censorship that brought out the best of his craft. I haven’t seen all his movies. Especially the ones he made in post-Franco era. Out of those ones, I have seen only ‘La Vaquilla’ and so I cannot make an objective analysis. But at least ‘La Vaquilla’ lacked sharpness of El Vedugo, Placido, Los Jueves Milagro etc. Berlanga tried to find stories hidden in the mundane routine of common people. His actors were not like Bardem, Banderas or Penelope; full of glee and glamour. His protagonists were Pepe Isebert, José Luis López Vazquez, Cassen and Manuel Alexandre. These were not stars with crowd pulling charisma and exotic beauty. These were humble actors, who started their careers doing theatre on streets, moving from village to village, entertaining the middle class of a country slowly healing wounds of a cruel civil war. They were ‘cómicos’. They were precisely what Berlanga needed to tell his stories; funny, humble, simple and very good at their craft.
Berlanga’s movies are also like a visual anthropological encyclopaedia for mid-20th century, Spanish society. His movies reflect a deep love for people around him. His movies frequently featured customs, rituals and festivals of people in Spanish villages. Movies like Plácido, Calabuch, La Vaquilla and Los Jueves Milagro have eloquent and elaborate scenes about festivities and rural lives in old Spain. Maybe he knew that someday his country will change. It will change so much that nobody will remember what it was like just half a century ago. That’s why he passionately captured his times, his people and their routine uninteresting lives on screen.
I wouldn’t write here about his movies in detail. Just because I am not sure I know them well enough. I watched ‘El Verdugo’ – arguably Berlanga’s and Spanish film history’s best movie ever – for the first time in 2007, I watched it again in 2009 and finally I watched it last week. Every time I have discovered something new, something fascinating. Same happened when I watched ‘La Vaquilla’ and ‘Plácido’ for the second time. Berlanga’s subtlety is so fantastic, every time you watch his movie you peel off a new layer and a new meaning, a new message emerges from within. His movies were whispers and whispers can be celebrated through whispers only. In the free and democratic world where we live probably Berlanga’s movies may be lost in the maze of memories. But someday, when some curious mind would like to know, ‘what happens when singing is banned?’, one would discover the music in Berlanga’s whispers.
RIP Maestro Berlanga! The wizard of whispers!