Plácido (Luis G. Berlanga, 1961)

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Plácido, directed by Luis G. Berlanga (1961).

Score: Timeless.

Christmas Eve in a small Spanish town. Plácido Alonso (Casto Sendra “Cassen”) is the humble owner of a three-wheeler whose family has to live in a public lavatory. He barely has enough money to pay the second installment of his vehicle, and has to ask some favours and endure some bureaucracy to try to pay the debt in time. At the same time, the wealthy families of the town have organised a “sit a poor man at your table” charity event (which were not unheard of in Spain during the dictatorship), including a parade, where the families bid for the company of a beautiful artist from the capital and a poor or elderly person.

Like La escopeta nacional, Plácido bears many trademarks from Berlanga’s style: shots crammed with people doing many things and speaking at the same time, with hilarious background events, sour social criticism disguised as a silly plot in order to avoid the censor’s scissors, and unsparing gallows humour.

The subtlety in the development of the plot means the viewer is left to decide what’s going on and who’s to blame for the situation: it is really a relentless mirror held up to the face of the moviegoer. And at the same time, Berlanga can be very blunt with his visual metaphors: five minutes after starting the parade, the poor man sitting on a float cannot have any of the turkey because the rich man has already devoured it. “I don’t know, offer him the bones!”, suggests the event photographer (José Luis López Vázquez).

The dialogue is just gold, showing and not telling the story. Lines are short and concise, referring to many cultural characteristics of the late Francoist period I actually had to ask my father about. Did you know prostitutes had an “artist’s ID” so they could work without law enforcement bothering them?

The most impressive technical aspects are the long, crowded and carefully planned shots. The camera follows the characters around inside the houses, zooming in and out of several conversations all occuring at the same time. Sound is probably the aspect that suffered the most, as it was customary at the time to dub over the shot footage, and the dialogue is sometimes out of sync with the actors’ lips.

A must-watch of satiric cinema and still contemporary after over fifty years.

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