His films stood up to dictator Franco

MADRID — Luis Garcia Berlanga, who helped introduce a tentative neorealism into Spain’s cinema, died Nov. 13 in Madrid, of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 89.

Though his films are far less known abroad than those of Luis Bunuel, Carlos Saura and Pedro Almodovar, Berlanga’s impact on Spanish cinema is arguably far larger.

The son of a moneyed politician, Berlanga’s bourgeois education never deserted him, and set him apart from most filmmakers in Spain’s post Civil War. He studied at Spain’s Institute of Cinematic Investigations and Experiences, where he befriended Juan Antonio Bardem, a committed communist. Together they directed “That Happy Couple,” about the economic travails of a young couple, and co-wrote “Welcome Mr. Marshall!” where a village disguises itself as a typical Andalusian hamlet in order to get funds from the Marshall Plan.

“Couple” helped introduce a kind of neorealism into Spanish cinema. “Marshall” won a special mention at Cannes, and was a box office hit.

Partnering with screenwriter Rafael Azcona beginning with 1959’s “Tram for Sale,” Berlanga directed the masterpieces “Placido” (1961) and “The Executioner” (1963). Their mix of neorealism, “sainete” farce and so-called esperpento — an acidic sense of the excesses of the powerful — founded the central tradition of Spanish film comedy that survives to this day.

In “Placido” and “Executioner,” Berlanga discovered a subject — the tragicomic humiliations of Spain’s petit bourgeoisie — and a style: foreshortened interiors, background contrasts and sequence shots dodging this way and that, capturing the convulsive chaos of Spain.

“Placido” and “Executioner” made Berlanga as a filmmaker. Directed during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, they also made him a marked man. A governmental Cabinet meeting took time off to discuss whether a scene in Berlanga’s short film contribution to 1962 omnibus feature “The Four Truths,” in which a donkey urinates into a swimming pool, was an allegory for Franco’s treatment of the Spanish nation. Franco himself famously wrote off Berlanga as “a bad Spaniard.”

Liberalization in the final years of Franco’s regime allowed Berlanga to make another career milestone in 1974, the Paris-set Michel Piccoli starrer”Grandeur Nature,” a merciless and melancholic dissection of man’s behavior toward women.

After Franco’s death in 1975, Berlanga helmed a trilogy: 1978’s “National Shotgun,” 1981’s “National Heritage” and 1982’s “National III,” a telling, farcical dissection of Spain’s increasingly decadent ruling classes.

In 1985, he directed “The Heifer,” set in the Civil War trenches, his last major film, and an acid lament of the futility of war.

Berlanga claimed he had little idea of politics, but no other Spanish filmmaker has nailed so well the Spanish society Franco perpetuated, and which partly lasts until this day: its choral egotism, lack of civic pride, pitiful penuries and limited liberties.

Berlanga’s death marks “the disappearance of the true father of Spanish cinema,” Pedro Almodovar wrote Nov. 14 in El Mundo newspaper. “No (Spanish) film director could avoid his influence.

Cultured, courteous and punctual, Berlanga was an honorary president of Spain’s Film Academy and the driving force behind its Ciudad de la Luz studios in Alicante.

Survivors include his wife, Maria Jesus, and three sons, including screenwriter Jorge.

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