There have been quite a few dramatic films on the theme of the death penalty, most of them making an eloquent case against it, and some of them really great—Krzysztof Kieslowki’s A Short Film About Killing and Peter Medak’s underrated gem Let Him Have It come to mind, among many others. But have you ever seen an anti-capital punishment comedy? There is one, and it just happens to be one of the best of them all. This unusual film, little known outside of Spain, was directed by Luis García Berlanga: from 1963, The Executioner.
The film opens with an elderly executioner, a gnome-like character played by the great Spanish actor José Isbert, who is looking at retiring soon, but has an unmarried daughter who can’t attract any suitors because her father and his odious job are regarded with superstitious repulsion. In the course of his duties, the executioner befriends a young undertaker named José, played by the Italian comedy star Nino Manfredi. José starts dating the daughter. One day, when the father comes home unexpectedly and finds them in an intimate situation, they tell him that they’ve decided to get married. A complicated problem involving preconditions for the old man’s getting a place to live for his retirement makes him insist that José take his place as executioner. José hates violence, and is terrified by the very idea of performing an execution, but the old man says there are ways to avoid it, and in any case it’s a temporary situation until he gets settled. But of course things don’t go the way they planned.
Berlanga co-wrote the film with Rafael Azcona. The movie is full of amusing dialogue about the frustrations of lower middle class life in Spain at the time. The conversations between the old man and his protégé about the various customs and methods of execution are hilarious. This is a very slick production with great black-and-white cinematography, innovative editing and camera placement, and fine acting. Only gradually will it dawn on the perceptive viewer that the film is satirizing the death penalty, and in fact the entire criminal justice system in Spain. The last half hour or so of the picture is so amazing that I refuse to spoil it for you by even describing the premise. I can only say that rarely have I seen satire so relevant, so poignant, and yet so funny.
This was made during the fascist regime of Francisco Franco, as were most of Berlanga’s films. But the state censors looked at The Executioner and didn’t notice a thing. Berlanga’s style was so brilliant that conventionally minded viewers would just see it as a really fun comedy and be completely unaware of the satire. And that’s just one of the reasons this movie is such a delight. The Executioner has been released on DVD by Criterion, and it’s a “must see.”