Screened November 11, 2009 on Tribanda DVD in Brooklyn NY
What is it about Spanish cinema that just nails how people are possessed by dreams and stories? Of course I’m making an overgeneralization, and yet the three Spanish filmmakers that I know best, Bunuel, Almodovar and (sheepishly, based on watching two films) Berlanga, all share an uncommon fascination with the rapture of storytelling. Whether through a voiceover narration or one person telling a tale to another, these films traffic in the private fantasies and urges of characters and audience alike. It’s true in Bunuel’s earliest sound film L’Age D’Or, with its narrative framework disintegrating into a lucid stream of on-screen impulsive acts, or as recently as Almodovar’s Broken Embraces, where much of the film’s pleasure is in just watching characters being transfixed by each other’s stories.
Within this hypothetical national subgenre, Bienvenido, Mister Marshall stands tall. A sleepy Castillan village tries to transform itself into an Andalusian postcard paradise upon hearing that American postwar funders may pass through. The voiceover sets it up like a fable (“There once was an old spanish Town”); the film is not only an allegory for a nation’s collective submission to the utopian facades of Franco’s Fascist Spain, but to the countermyth of America, which pervades the characters’ dreams as well as fears. Two sequences bear this out vividly. In the first, villagers are ordered to line up and tell the administrators, Santa Claus-style, one thing they would like in return for contributing to the fake village effort. Some of the impoverished villagers can’t even mentally process this offer, having never been in a position to dream big, much less ask for things beyond food, clothing and shelter. The other is a brilliant sequence that relays from one character’s nocturnal fantasies to another, each one informed in their own way by the movies: a priest’s nightmare shot with Expressionist angles of Puritanical oppression; the mayor’s fantasy of gunslinging Western heroism; a farmer’s dream that brilliantly mixes social realist propaganda and Hollywood fantasy, with a plane flown by Santa Claus parachuting tractors to the peasantry.
With its withering observations on human fallacy and self-delusion on both an individual and collective level, Bienvenido, Mister Marshall would be one of the most merciless social satires ever made, if its condescending omniscience towards its subjects didn’t somehow implicate itself. There’s a priceless moment where the voiceover chastises a schoolmistress in bed possibly doing indecent things to herself; in doing so the narrator outs himself as being as much of a control freak as Franco. As such, the film amounts to its own fantasy construct of Spain as an eternally tragic, but laughably charming dystopia. It does as masterful a job of selling its vision as the fascist and capitalist ideologues it eviscerates.
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This is a comic Trojan horse and perhaps the first great Spanish film. When a commission for a folkloric musical to make Lolita Sevilla a star fell to the secretly pro-communist UNINCI production company, Bardem and Berlanga used the cash to show how all the Francoist world was a stage in a tall tale of a drab Castilian village that does itself up in Andalusian glad rags in order to attract dollars from the Marshall Plan. An amazing satire of what Spain and Spanishness was reduced to during the dictatorship, cooked up with equal parts anarchy and compassion and flavoured like an Ealing comedy.
– Time Out
Welcome, Mr. Marshall! was one of the rare Spanish films to treat political events of the day—foremost the exclusion of the country, as a pariah nation, from Marshall Plan funds. The movie concerns the frenzied attempts of a small Castilian town to seduce American money by organizing a ridiculous fiesta; the place becomes a kind of false-front movie set masking the dire conditions in which the inhabitants really live. This sharp, good-humored spoof of Spanishness—or the Hollywood image of Spanishness—bears a resemblance to the best Ealing comedies.
– Elliot Stein, The Village Voice
¡Bienvenido Mister Marshall! (Welcome Mister Marshall!, 1952) the first full-length film Berlanga directed alone, marks a watershed in Spanish cinema history. Although it is probably his most celebrated film, it is by no means his best. Originally conceived of as a musical vehicle to launch the career of the teenage flamenco singer Lolita Sevilla, Berlanga created both a devastating parody of Francoist mythmaking (particularly of the regime’s promotion of Spain to the outside world as a picturesque paradise of bullfighting and flamenco), and a searing commentary on the Economic Recovery Program (better known as The Marshall Plan), of which Spain was never a beneficiary. Made the year before the United States established military bases on Spanish territory, ¡Bienvenido Mister Marshall!manages to lampoon Hollywood, McCarthyism, the Catholic Church and Francoism all at the same time. Remarkably, the Spanish authorities saw little to object in it and the film escaped major censorship. However, the film missed out on a prize at the Cannes Film Festival that year due to the veto of jury member Edward G. Robinson who complained of its anti-Americanism.
– Steven Marsh, Senses of Cinema
The wonderful way in which it blends humour with an appreciation of humanity. It’s hilarious, true; but it also reflects a warm understanding of human nature, of the universal habit of assigning stereotypes to everybody and everything, of the ability to dream and build castles in the air; and of the resilience of those dreams. Beinvenido Mister Marshall! actually reminded me a lot of Giovanni Guareschi’s superb novels of the Italian priest, Don Camillo, and his little village in the Po Valley. If you look closely, there’s more than just humour here: there’s also a sensitivity that’s touching and sweet. And so very global: Villar del Río could have been any quiet village in any corner of the world, suddenly faced with the chance of becoming rich…
¡Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall! has long been noted as a landmark film in Spanish cinema, “el clásico más irónico del cine español” that “cracked open new possibilities for engagement with significant socio-political commentary within conventional comedic modes” (Moyano; Rolph 8). The Berlanga film can be listed as part of a series of cultural, political, and economic events that make the early 1950s a key moment in the evolution of the Franco regime and Spain in general. As such a classic film arriving at such a key moment, Berlanga´s film has been studied from a variety of viewpoints, but typically either viewed as a film of social critique or aesthetic exploration. Ramón Gubern, for example, describes its ideological project in terms of post-1898 “Regeneracionismo” while Kathleen Vernon reads the film as a critique of the seepage of Hollywood into everyday life (Gubern, in Gómez Rufo 250-51; Vernon 321). In the following pages I argue that the two readings, while not discounting the other, have not been sufficiently linked. By linking the two, I find in Berlanga´s film a social critique that extends beyond the immediate historical limits of 1953 Spain defined by a flagging regionarationist spirit, its present cultural subservience to Hollywood, or its forthcoming encounter with U.S. foreign policy. As aesthetic exploration and social critique are read together, ¡Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall! may be viewed as a film more about processes than products. It is a film that invites its spectators along on an exploration of the processes by which their nation has been imagined, is currently imagined, and especially how it may be imagined in the future. In so doing, the film hints at new social, political, and spatial orders to come in the next half-century that begin with but extend far beyond the simple remaking of a nation (Spain), of its internal components (Castilla/Andalucía), or of its basic international relations (Spain/U.S.). It may be a stretch to argue that Berlanga´s film is a story about globalization. Still, I argue that by drawing social and aesthetically-focused readings together, a view of the film surfaces that reveals the film´s registration of emergent processes through which spectators as citizens (or citizens as spectators, as I will show) would participate to thoroughly rethink and reshape their world in the coming decades…
The critical if comedic exploration surrounding the remaking of Villar is quite apparent to even the casual viewer. More critical to our reading is the way that Berlanga positions his spectator to draw connections between the imagination of Villar del Río, the Spanish nation, and the international order, and, by way of meta-cinematic devices, between the on-screen re-imagining and that which is taking place in the dark of the movie theater. This more far-reaching exploration of the re-imagining of nation begins with the opening shot of the film. A still focus on a dirt road vanishing into the rural meseta situates the on-screen story in the heart of Franco´s officially celebrated Castilian countryside. As the opening credits end, an automobile approaches along the road. As it passes, the camera pans 180 degrees to the left to reveal the village of Villar del Río in the distance as a flock of sheep graze in the foreground. While classic Hollywood film-the kind parodied by Bienvenido, but most familiar to its audiences-would dictate a reverse shot at this point to follow the opening shot and thereby suture a would-be spectator into an initial identification, here Berlanga´s editing leaves the spectator in limbo. Explicitly, the camera would seem to be a local villager on the outskirts of the town. Implicitly, by breaking the magical invisibility of classic cinema, the would-be spectator is not invited to identify with this look but left rather in the uncomfortable position of an anticipating film viewer still awaiting the moment of suture. In light of this separation, it is significant that the spectator stands just beyond the town sign, explicitly a member of the community of Villar del Río, but implicitly empowered with an outsider´s awareness of that community as yet an object of the cinematic gaze. Hence, before the spectator meets Villar´s people and places-its signified–, she sees (literally) Villar´s sign post-or signifier-and thereby recognizes Villar as such…
Berlanga´s film, then, is not simply about a disappointing non-encounter, nor a film about changing concepts of respective nations, but ultimately, a film about the changing concept of the nation itself. The nation could not continue as before because the technologies through which it had once been imagined had changed. Berlanga´s film does not suggest that Spain would disappear, nor that it would become one homogenous Andalucía, nor another US colony. Change would appear more subtly but its effects would finally be more profound. After all, at the conclusion of the film Villar del Río returns to its farming roots, just as citizens of the global era so often flock to ethnic roots for security from “Marshall-izing” motorcades.(20) Nevertheless, tapping back into those roots now costs the villagers, just as sustaining “authentic” identities against encroaching global cultural forces requires economic capital. And while, as the film´s fairytale conclusion, “colorín colorado este cuento se ha acabado,” affirms the right of all to keep dreaming, the fact remains that Villar del Río still lacks a railroad—the means for the common citizens to move beyond their community and do more than imagine themselves in other possible communities. As in our own global work, while the villagers are stuck, foreign delegates at various levels blow in and out of town, raising and then dashing hope, promising prosperity but delivering only more—and now more self-consciously felt—poverty (see Friedman 112-42; Harvey 59-72 for contemporary comparisons). The debate over the film´s ending continues today. Is it hopeful? Is it terribly pessimistic? One might argue that Berlanga finally adopts a rather postmodernist or globalist position: resigned, if playfully so. As writers from David Harvey to Thomas Friedman have remarked, many of the processes of globalization simply cannot be reversed (Harvey 85; Friedman xxii). The community we inhabit can no longer be imagined as it once was. Moreover, the subject who imagines is each day less a citizen and more a consumer and spectator. Nevertheless, awareness of the nature of the spaces we inhabit and of the technologies that shape these spaces into imagined communities can facilitate discovery of possible strategies for remaking those spaces. For all its playfulness and, finally, resignation, ¡Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall!, at least produces a degree of awareness that combines with its playful critique to open the door to potential agency in the struggle to participate in the reshaping of a now postnational community. Perhaps in this empowering lays the remarkable staying power of Berlanga´s film.
– Nathan E. Richardson, Bowling Green State University
ABOUT LUIS GARCIA BERLANGA
For many years in Spain strict censorship guidelines inhibited the development of a vital and creative film industry. The first original auteur of the post-Civil War period was Luis García Berlanga. When he began to make movies in the early 1950s, Berlanga and fellow filmmaker Juan Antonio Bardem were referred to as the two palm trees in the desert of Spanish film. Since then, and in spite of the fact that he could make relatively few films under Franco, Berlanga has remained one of Spain’s foremost talents.
– Katherine Singer Kovács, Film Reference.com
Although his projects were often halted and cut by censors during the dictatorship, Berlanga managed to challenge the Franco myth through comedy, ridiculing Spanish foibles with chaotic farces and outlandish sight gags. Berlanga’s own personal history is emblematic of the shifting complexities of Spanish politics. He describes himself as “a Christian, but creatively an anarchist and politically a liberal.” But as a young man, during World War II, he had volunteered for the “Blue Division” that went to battle in the Soviet Union to aid the Nazi cause. Berlanga maintains that he did so to save his Republican father from a death sentence.
– Elliot Stein, The Village Voice
Born into a wealthy, land-owning family in Spain’s eastern province of Valencia, Berlanga enjoyed a comfortable and untroubled upbringing until the onset of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936. While the Francoist uprising sought to bring down the democratically-elected Second Republic, Berlanga’s father was one of the Valencia regional representatives in the national parliament. In the aftermath of the war Berlanga senior was arrested and sentenced to death. Eventually the sentence was commuted but he remained in prison until 1952, only to die six months after his release. Meanwhile, shortly before the end of the war the 18-year-old Berlanga junior was mobilised by the Republican forces and conscripted into a medical unit. Following the Francoist victory, in what constitutes one of the many paradoxes of Berlanga’s life, he seemingly changed sides and volunteered to serve in the Blue Division—the unit of Spanish soldiers who travelled to the Soviet Union to fight for Germany in World War II as part of an agreement between Hitler and Franco—in a desperate effort to gain favour with the regime and save his father’s life. Although he never directly saw action, the future filmmaker would draw upon these experiences in later life and the dark comedy that pervades his cinema is marked by these ironies. Berlanga is not only the funniest but also the bleakest of Spanish directors.
Once back in Spain, Berlanga moved to Madrid and commenced his studies in literature at the city’s Complutense University. It was during this period that he developed an interest in cinema. In 1947, when the Madrid film school—the portentously named Institute of Cinematic Investigation and Experience (IIEC)—opened, Berlanga promptly dropped his literary studies and switched. Created by Franco’s cultural commissars after the Civil War, the school was modelled on Rome’s Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia founded by Benito Mussolini (which spawned, amongst other lauded directors, Roberto Rossellini and Michelangelo Antonioni).
Together with his classmates from the first promotion of graduates from the IIEC—among whom was his friend and close collaborator, lifelong Communist Party member, Juan Antonio Bardem—Berlanga was instrumental in the creation, firstly, of Altamira and then Uninci, the production company behind some of the most significant Spanish movies of the post-war period and which, in time, would produce Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana (1961).
Keen to distance themselves from what they perceived as the backward, dogmatic, censored and often religious-based cinema required of them by the regime, Berlanga, Bardem and company were enthusiastic about the work of their counterparts in Italy. The screening of a series of movies during the 1951 Italian film week in Madrid came as a revelation to them.
While the impression that Italian neorealism caused upon these budding filmmakers is undeniable, the evidence of its influence in practical terms on Spanish cinema is negligible, and this is particularly so in the work of Berlanga. Many critics have sought to pigeon hole Berlanga into the convenient category of neorealism, partly because it has proved easier to construct him in this way, but also because it is a means by which to avoid serious exploration of Berlanga’s complex relation with the Spanish literary and filmic tradition. The critical disjuncture surrounding Berlanga concerns his function as a popular filmmaker. As I have written elsewhere, Berlanga is often found situated at a problematic frontier between popular culture and cultural populism. (1) Berlanga’s relationship with politics, moreover, is equally complicated and very often contradictory. While Bardem explicitly linked his politics to those of neorealism and sought to create an oppositional cinema both through his own films and magazines such as Objetivo (founded in 1953), Berlanga has consistently eluded categorisation. His refusal to share Bardem’s militancy is coupled with his insistence that the subversive nature of his cinema belongs within a tradition of Spanish popular theatre known as sainete (2) that, although originating in the 18th century, reached its most powerful expression during the Second Republic.
In 1955 Berlanga and Bardem were present and decisive at a celebrated conference, known as the Conversaciones de Salamanca, organised by critic and director Basilio Martín Patino as an attempt to refocus the direction Spanish cinema was taking and to co-ordinate a dialogue between liberal elements within the state machinery (most notably the erstwhile head of cinema and theatre in the Ministry of Tourism and Information, José María García Escudero, who would hold the position on two different occasions in 1951 and 1962) and the moderately left opposition. It was Bardem’s searing intervention in the course of the Conversaciones that has defined (and in my view misdefined) the entire generation. Bardem declared that Spanish cinema was, “politically ineffectual, socially false, intellectually poverty-stricken, aesthetically void and industrially stunted.”
In spite of Bardem’s speech at the Salamanca conference, it is simply not the case that Spanish cinema prior to his work and that of Berlanga was exclusively a vehicle for the Dictatorship and its allies in the Catholic Church, even though such a view was common currency among critics until recently. Over the last decade new scholarship has demonstrated that relatively few Spanish movies of the immediate post-war period conformed to Bardem’s caricature. Of the more than 500 films made in Spain between 1939 and 1951—the so-called period of autarky or cultural and economic self-sufficiency—less than 20 conform to this particular caricature. The vast majority of the nation’s film production consisted of musicals, melodramas and popular comedies. Even the populist, albeit brutally repressive, Franco (himself a fan of cinema) acknowledged the need to make concessions. In the aftermath of the war, the Nationalist victors were conscious of the necessity of incorporating the bulk of the losing masses into their project. To this end, the horrors of the post-war period were coupled with cultural initiatives designed to elicit popular consent.
– Steven Marsh, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography