Blu-Ray Review – The Executioner
It is hard to review the work for a company like Criterion, without just handing out universal praise. Their movie releases tend to be so far past most of the industry the only real way you can fairly compare them is against themselves, and it is in that regard sometimes they end up being their own worst enemies. One of Criterion’s greatest strengths is being able to find and share movie classics that have often been overlooked or forgotten. One of these gems is The Executioner (originally titled El verdugo) from acclaimed Spanish director Luis García Berlanga. While still excellent, the blu-ray release for it isn’t quite up to Criterion’s usual high standards.
Often considered to be one of the best directors in the history of Spain, Berlanga’s work was unable to receive the recognition of some of his contemporaries from countries such as Italy and France, largely due to the politics of the time during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. And while he might have fully got the recognition at the time, his dark comedies still resonate powerfully, more than five decades later.
The Executioner is the story of an undertaker (Nino Manfredi) thats falls in love with the daughter (Emma Penella) of an executioner (José Isbert) and is forced into the family business of his father-in-law as the pressures of life mount. It is very easy to see the similarity between Berlanga and other filmmakers (in particular for me Federico Fellini‘s early work came to mind). He is a master at making a story feel timeless, finding humor in the unexpected and adding nuance and layering that capture the culture of the era, even during a period of intense censorship.
Berlanga deserves an immense amount of credit for bringing humor and subtly into a story which is essentially a statement on the death penalty. What potentially could have been a really drab and depressing drama, is made not only relatable but light and funny. The subtext of the story provides a thoughtful peek into the world in which this film was made and the delicate dance that was needed to get it past the censors.
Visually this film is virtually flawless. Criterion always excels at visual quality. Here they went to the trouble of getting a new, restored 4K digital transfer so everything looks near perfection. It is hard to find a speck of dust anywhere. The film is black and white, but the careful use of contrast is impeccably rendered and the film feels as if it had been just released and is not over 50 years old.
The blu-ray has an uncompressed monaural soundtrack, which I found to be a bit quiet and I had to turn up the volume while watching it. Everything was very clear, just a little muted. The clarity of audio is important as Berlanga is known to be a director who would have many characters speaking simultaneously. This might be a bit of a pain for those having to follow the subtitles, but it adds another layer for the Spanish speakers in the crowd. The folly effects are crispy rendered, and clever use of volume plays an important role at times during the film.
The one area I will admit to be a little disappointed by was the special features. Usually Criterion discs are loaded with them, and this one felt, a little bit on the lighter side. The most glaring absence was the lack of a commentary track, and while that isn’t a deal breaker, it is usually one of Criterion’s strengths.
The most eye catching feature is an interview with famed Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar (Talk to Her, Bad Education), so naturally I was very eager to hear what he had to say. Unfortunately, it is very brief, maybe 8 minutes long. The interview is enjoyable, but feels a bit shallow and never gets too in-depth into the film or Berlanga.
The best special feature actually ends up being the documentary Bad Spaniard. Lasting almost an hour, the documentary features an thorough examination of The Executioner, as well as some of Berlanga’s other films, such as Placido. It includes many interviews with Spanish film historians as well as one of Berlanga’s own sons who shares some amazing historical items that have been saved since the filming of the movie. This almost makes up for the lack of a commentary track, but is a little more diverse in its subject matter that. One particularly interesting aspect was hearing how Berlanga would collaborate with writer Rafael Azcona. Their partnership is worthy of a documentary on its own.
The last special feature is an episode of the Spanish TV show La Mitad Invisible about Berlanga. It is somewhat informative, but mostly quirky and isn’t a bad add-on but probably not something I’m up to revisit much. The episode spends a little too much time focusing on the host and his antics. This is the closest we get to actually hearing from Berlanga himself as some old taped interviews are spliced in, which is the best part of this feature.
This is a solid release from Criterion, nothing spectacular but one worth checking out. It is an excellent film, in great condition. It certainly isn’t my favorite release Criterion has ever done, but they did a very good job of paying the film ample attention. The one dip is compared to other Criterion releases it feels like the special features were a bit underdeveloped. Even still, if you are a fan of film or are at all curious about the history of film, this is a release worth checking out. For a movie that is over 50 years old, it is still extremely accessible and the characters are very engaging.