El verdugo (Luis G. Berlanga, 1963).

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El verdugo, directed by Luis G. Berlanga (a.k.a. The executioner, 1963).

Score: unforgettable.

Young undertaker José Luis (Nino Manfredi), who has the aspiration to emigrate to Germany to become a mechanic, starts a romance with Carmen (Emma Penella), the daughter of government executioner Amadeo (José Isbert). Having conceived a child out of wedlock, José Luis is forced by social convention within the Francoist dictatorship to marry Carmen and provide for his family. Amadeo has been granted an apartment for being a civil worker, but he will be retired by the time the building is finished, so José Luis is forced to take up his father-in-law’s profession, despite his deep rejection of ending another person’s life.

For context, death penalty during the Francoist period was carried out using a method called garrote vil, which involved tying the convict to a chair and adjusting a U-shaped metal piece around their neck; the piece was adjusted until it caused death either by severing the spinal cord or by asphyxia. 112 people were put to death using this method during the dictatorship, the last of which were Salvador Puig Antich and Georg Michael Welzel in 1974. Executioners were, as shown in the movie, civil workers tasked with operating the device; since there were so few executions, they were kept on the payroll and had other jobs or occupations.

I find it stifling that the society portrayed in this movie existed a mere fifty years ago right where I’m standing now. The characters keep yelling at each other that they are decent people, and that nobody should deviate from the norm because what will the neighbours say then?? My dad has lived through all that and has some perspective; he kept commenting that José Luis was making such a fuss of it all, but my heart was completely with the main character. See, if birth control hadn’t been banned back then, José Luis and Carmen wouldn’t have had an unwanted pregnancy; they could have sought economical stability and then decided whether they wanted to start a family or not. If José Luis hadn’t been forced to attain a standard of living out of his reach, he wouldn’t find himself in a situation where he needs to betray his moral principles. The movie is so effective because it both criticizes the society it was born into, and also appeals to a universal feeling: how miserable it is to have to give up on your dreams due to circumstances you can’t change, and what a nightmare it is to get to the point where your whole being is corrupted by actions you are forced to take.

Nino Manfredi is heartbreaking after the deed, shielding his eyes with his hat and muttering that he will never do it again. In the warm sea waters of Mallorca, men and women are dancing on a boat, completely oblivious to the fact that a man has just been put to death by the government.

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