Screened January 30 2010 on .avi downloaded from the website that dare not speak its name in Brooklyn, NY
As with my previous entry on Douce, the only print of this film that I could access has no subtitles. My original plan was to enlist a Spanish-speaking friend to watch it with me and offer live translation. But having watched the film, I wouldn’t wish to force anyone to help me through the muy rapido Spanish dialogue. Just listening to it recalls the breathless banter of 30s screwball.
The online synopses I could find (most of them posted after the break) offer only cursory summaries of the plot, leaving much of what transpired onscreen lost to me. So much the better to appreciate the film’s cinematic qualities. As I mentioned, the film’s spitfire dialogue recalls the comedies of Capra and Hawks; some associate the film’s Christmas setting and main plot (a guy desperately trying to save his livelihood after the bank calls in his loan) to Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Others connect the film’s subplot about the rich townspeople’s bogus, self-serving acts of charity towards poor people during Christmas with that other great Spanish film of 1961, Bunuel’s Viridiana. But the film’s satirical depiction of people engaged in a manic farce while hosting out-of-town visitors had me thinking of another great comedy of the same year, Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three.
Watching the film, despite feeling that the film moved at a brisk clip thanks to the speedy dialogue, I began to notice how long the takes were, with many shots lasting over a minute or more. I went back from the beginning and counted no less than 25 shots, each lasting one-to-three minutes long, which altogether account for over a third of the film’s 80 minute running time (title credit sequence not counted). There are roughly an additional 17 shots lasting 30-59 seconds. Overall, there are a total of 158 shots in 80 minutes, averaging 30 seconds a shot.
Why does Berlanga rely so much on long takes? On the practical side, it’s simpler, faster and more economical to set up a single master take than to do multiple camera set-ups for a given scene. But Berlanga is no slouch. Just watch this one-take scene. Clocking in at almost 3 minutes, it’s one of the longest shots in the film. Try to figure out how many actors are in the scene, and how many camera positions he’s able to achieve in one take:
By my count I have a dozen characters, and about half a dozen unique looks at this one room. Berlanga is very resourceful, relying on what I think is a single dolly track to roll the camera up and down the room , rotating the camera horizontally so that it captures a total of about 120 degrees of the room over the course of the scene. But perhaps what’s most impressive is his staging of actors in several different configurations so that there’s an exceptionally dynamic sense of dramatic movement as well as shifting social dynamics from start to finish. Masterful use of foreground and background, not to mention lateral movement, to emphasize contrasts between divisions of people within a single room.
Believe it or not, this scene is preceded by a one-shot scene lasting 80 seconds, and followed by another one-shot scene lasting three and a half minutes. This dynamically staged long-take technique pretty much dominates the middle stretch of the film, where in one scene after another, people are thrown into different, contentious combinations, their fortunes and emotional states apparently in constant flux.
But Berlanga is no one-trick/ long-take pony. In other scenes, he’ll incorporate flash cutaways lasting just a second or two. There are a couple of sequences that use this technique liberally: the arrival of the charity benefactors at the town’s train station; and a charity auction where a man appears to be pressured to bid for something he doesn’t want to save face. Interestingly, both of these scenes amount to public ceremonies, as if to suggest that they elicit heightened states of excitement and anxiety.
Berlanga’s filmmaking was already quite deft 10 years earlier when he made Bienvenido, Mister Marshall!, employing freeze frames, fast motion and other comic editing tricks at a level on par with Preston Sturges. But his handling of dialogue scenes catered more to conventional Hollywood decoupage techniques. Compare what goes on in the above clip from Placido with how the following stills, captured from one scene in Bienvenido Mister Marshall!, cuts from master shot to individual close ups before returning to the master:
As another point of comparison to Berlanga’s shooting and in-camera editing technique, I pulled up Wilder’s aforementioned One, Two Three and played through the first half of the film, as well as the famous extended climactic sequence whose energy and incredible use of interior spaces to move action along is worthy of comparison to those in Placido. Scanning through about 80 minutes of footage, only once did I find a shot that lasted more than one minute. Here’s a representative capture from that sequence:
Even though the pacing is manic, the space isn’t nearly as compressed as the interiors in Placido. This film is set in large modern office spaces whose expanse suits a wide Scope frame. Some of the energy is conveyed from a host of characters rushing in and out of Cagney’s office with their crises of the moment, with Cagney riding the eye of the storm. For the most part the The film employs an arsenal of shots at different lengths (wide/ medium / close-up), tracking shots, shot/ reverse-shot dialogues, woven seamlessly and coherently even as it conveys the chaos at hand.
Interestingly, despite an ensemble of over a dozen characters interacting with Cagney over the course of this sustained climactic act, there are hardly ever more than two or three characters engaged with him at a given moment, which allows for Wilder to parse the manic activity he’s concocted into a coherent stream. Compare this to the above shot in Placido, where a dozen characters appear in one shot and alternate in their interactions, no one of them dominating the proceedings.
Wilder’s approach creates a more adversarial feeling between characters, setting up clear oppositional dynamics, mostly between James Cagney’s blow-hard Coke executive and everyone around him, with whom he dispatches one at a time. Berlanga’s technique of shooting dialogue scenes emphasizes more of a holistic social environment. Even as people contend with each other inside the frame, the camera acts as a needle to weave them together into a tapestry of comic dysfunction.
Interestingly, Berlanga’s film El Verdugo, made two years after Placido, employs a widescreen camera approaching the Scope compositions of One, Two, Three. While Berlanga largely retains the use of long takes often exceeding a minute, instead of compressed compositions of people, he more frequently exploits the wide screen to emphasize distances between people, especially with the main characters, who are undertakers, and thus relatively ostracized within society:
Thinking further on my account of Berlanga’s work in Placido, I’m now curious to compare his approach to ensemble scene-making to that of perhaps the most famous American ensemblist, Robert Altman. I don’t seem to have a DVD of Nashville or Short Cuts on me (!), but I would wager that even Altman doesn’t let his shots go as long or involve as sophisticated blocking as you see with Berlanga. Altman, a TV director, relied on multi-camera setups that he could use to cut from shot to shot, always looking for a shot to materialize (as in a sports event) rather than constructing it through blocking and framing.
Speaking of sports, I was playing with this sports analogy: that Wilder shoots dialogue like a lightweight boxer, dancing quickly across the canvas of his wide shots before settling into a series of shot/reverse shot flurries; while Berlanga is more akin to a heavyweight, lumbering steadily across the canvas, pushing you around the ring. Not sure how well this holds up, but it gives me an excuse to put up this clip:
Finally, I would like to say that I think enough of this film after one impaired viewing that I’d like to see it again with subtitles. I’m hoping someone might come through and offer timed fansubs. In fact, I’m willing to offer $140 US (which translates to about 100 Euros) to the first person who can provide timed fansubs for this film.
To take part in the Shooting Down Pictures Fansub Challenge, all you need is a copy of the movie Placido, which you can find via torrent, and a PayPal account for me to send the money if you’re the first one done. If you’re interested but don’t know how to access the movie via torrent, send me an email or DM me on Twitter (at alsolikelife) to let me know you’re interested, and I’ll hook you up. Offer good only until February 28, so better get cracking!
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Placido among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?
Antonio Gimenez-Rico, Nickel Odeon (1997)
Fernando Trueba, Nickel Odeon (1994)
Jose Luis Garci, Nickel Odeon (1998)
Montxo Armendariz, Fotogramas (2006)
Pedro Crespo, Nickel Odeon (1997)
Dirigido Por, Best Spanish Films (1992)
Fotogramas, The 100 Best Films in the History of Cinema (1995)
Nickel Odeon, The Films of Our Life (1994)
Nickel Odeon, Spanish Canon (1995)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Film
Nominated for the Best Foreign Language film award at that year’s Oscars, Plácido—a Christmas movie—has a direct relationship with the work of Frank Capra and in particular It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), albeit with none of Capra’s sentimentality. Meanwhile, if Plácido unmasked the dominant discourses surrounding the traditional family and Christian charity, El verdugo, arguably his finest film, struck at the very heart of the repressive Francoist state. El verdugo tells the story of a man who, on marrying the daughter of the state executioner, is condemned to inherit his father-in-law’s job. This is a story that interrogates and unveils the anatomy of Spanish society at an historical turning point. The film, for example, unpicks the reality of the country’s 1960s tourist boom that would, on the one hand, help consolidate the revived fortunes of the Spanish economy, while on the other, would bring with it the unwanted ‘foreign’ values of liberalism and sexual freedom.
– Steven Marsh, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography
Mr. Berlanga’s 1961 film, “Placido,” (…) is a chattery comedy about an impoverished man who spends the day before Christmas trying to avoid foreclosure on his motorbike. The character’s frantic dealings with bankers and lawyers are set against the film’s satirical canvas of a provincial town putting on a showy Christmas campaign called “Seat a Poor Man at Your Table.” With its harshly funny portrait of the penny-pinching gentry, of greedy nuns and aggressive salespeople pushing pressure cookers as miraculous kitchen tools, the film offers a scabrously mocking portrait of officialdom putting on a display that is as grotesque as it is hypocritical.
– Stephen Holden, The New York Times
ADDITIONAL REVIEWS (found on IMDb)
As is almost always the case with the films of Berlanga, this film is a comedy on the surface, which hides a very hard and crude criticism of the situation of Spanish society during the dictatorship. In those years, Spanish filmmakers couldn’t speak freely and openly about the dismal state of their country, so they had to pass their message to the audience between the lines. Berlanga was a master at doing this, and Plácido is one of his finest examples. The abysmal differences that existed between the very poor (the majority of the population at the time) and the very rich, who treated the rest with utter contempt and ridiculous condescency, is portrayed with such strength that it can’t leave anyone indifferent. But it is done in the form of a comedy, and a very funny one, full of absurd situations and memorable dialogues, but also a very black one, with some scenes, especially near the end of the movie, which are on the edge of the truly macabre. A true masterpiece from one of the greatest Spanish directors.
The atmosphere of this film took me back to another time and place, to a very naive and innocent Spain. This film is Garcia Berlanga’s incursion into his own brand of neorealism. The music keeps evoking the scores of the great Italian masterpieces of that period.??Placido, the hero, in a way, is everyman caught in a web of bureaucracy where he has to fight against all the odds to keep his vehicle in order to survive. He does whatever he can in order to pay the draft, but all conspires against him. Placido is a decent working person, a man of honor who has to fulfill his obligations, in this case, paying the draft that is due on the day the story unfolds. Everything is against him. We see him fighting his way to do so, in this, his long journey into the Christmas Eve celebration.??Cassen was a marvelous and charismatic actor who was very convincing as Placido. He’s always at the center of the action, and at times, he is even at the center of some of the other characters conflicts. Jose Luis Lopez Vazquez, is very effective as Gabino, the photographer. The rest of the ensemble cast perform very well under the direction of Garcia Berlanga.
In a small town of Spain, on the eve of Christmas, some ladies are invented the Christmas campaign “dine with a poor”, so that the poorest people, enjoyment by a night of warmth and affection that do not have, sitting at the table of the rich families. In the middle of the preparations is “Plácido”, (Cassen), which is hired to participate with his motorcar in the cavalcade organized for the campaign, but there is a small detail which prevented him from devoted solely to his task: the same day of Christmas Eve, defeats him the first invoice of motorcar, his sole means of livelihood.??It is one of the masterpieces undisputed and fundamental filmography of Luis Garcia Berlanga. Filmed at the time summit of their creativity, in a period cultural difficult, where the enormous censorship of the political regime, exacerbated the ingenuity and imagination of the scriptwriters. A script, with malevolent intent, of own Berlanga and Rafael Azcona and under the direction of Berlanga very far from the tenderness that taught in previous work, make a comedy coral with a bitter, pessimistic reflection on the Spanish society of the time.??It is a acquired late, both in the form as in the fund and a portrait heartless and merciless of a society hypocritical, petty with double standards, where the most important are the appearance, and that preaches charity but not the practice, which is bothering him poverty but that does nothing to eradicate and that it needs to launch a cruel farce, in the form of Christmas campaign.??The movie has breakdown unrepeatable major players in their best performances, which would have to be stressed in all. It’s full of memorable sequences, grotesque, surreal and the time dramatic It’s especially unforgettable which develops in the public toilet. And the long scene, genial sequence in which the sudden deterioration of the state of health of one of the poor, seriously ill, triggers a situation comic-pathetic which shows all the miseries of that society amoral??The film has a indent brilliant, and the dialogs never ebb, are kept in a high level of ingenious humor . It has nothing to envy Italian masters such as De Sica or Fellini and that in movies such as “Placido”, is even better.??I think it is my favorite movie.