MADRID — Spanish writer-director José Luis Cuerda, a masterful modern practitioner of Spain’s central comedic tradition, died Feb. 4 in Madrid from a stroke. He was 72.
He will also be remembered for discovering Alejandro Amenábar, especially producing his first feature, “Thesis.”
Born in Albacete, central Spain, but moving to Madrid, Cuerda made his feature debut in 1982 with relationship dramedy “Pares y nones.” It was with his second film, 1987’s “The Enchanted Forest,” however, that Cuerda really found his own voice and a place in Spain’s central comedic film tradition, working with screenwriter Rafael Azcona, Luis Berlanga’s regular scribe, and adapting a novel of a writer, Wenceslao Fernández Flórez, who had been brought to the big screen before by two Spanish comedic giants: Edgar Neville and Fernando Fernán Gómez.
Azcona’s humor mixed acidity, the episodic structure of Spanish sainete theater sketches and the social critique of Italian neorealism. Cuerda took this and, in a second rural comedy, 1989’s “Dawn Breaks, Which Is No Small Thing,” regarded now by many as his masterpiece, added lashings of whimsy and surrealism, an impossibly large ensemble cast, including some of the great secondary actors of his time, and a liking for trenchant but melancholic aphorism. “There comes a time when you can’t remember if you’ve forgotten all that you wanted to forget,” his autobiography, “Memorias fritas,” ends.
“Dawn Breaks” made Cuerda, won him young fans who now drive Spain’s comedy scene, and a hallmark style to which he returned in 1995’s “On Heaven as It Is on Earth.”
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Cuerda tried other types of filmmaking, most notably in “The Language of Butterflies,” a well-turned out but lacerating period coming-of-age tale, co-written by Azcona, set at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and starring Fernando Fernán Gómez as an aging but enlightened teacher.
He was to return, however, to surrealistic whimsy in his final feature, 2018’s “Some Time After,” a labor of love and valedictory which was showcased at San Sebastian and set in a distant future, 9177, where the rich live in a skyscraper and the rest of the world in neo-Medieval squalor.
“You young directors have to learn first to be people,” Alejandro Amenábar recalls as a “principal piece of advice” given to him by Cuerda, whom he called “a second father in life, and a moral reference.”
Cuerda is survived by his two daughters, Irene y Elena Cuerda.