Big Screen Berkeley: Luis Berlanga’s quirky comedies

Bienvenido Mister Marshall

Luis Berlanga’s “utterly charming” Bienvenido Mister Marshall!

When someone gets around to making my biopic, it could well be entitled I Was a Teenage Movie Addict. While the rest of the kids spent summer vacation having fun in the sun, I spent mine basking in the soothing cathode glow of the family TV set, watching as many movies as possible. On a good day I might take in five, six, or sometimes even seven films — and (of course) I kept a list of them (which, of course, I still have).

Sadly, those youthful summers are long gone, and now I’m lucky if I take in two movies a day. More than likely I’m going to fall well short of my goal of seeing every film ever made (or at least, those that still exist), especially since they keep churning ‘em out with reckless abandon and I keep getting older.

The depressing truth is that I’m unlikely to have time for more than 40,000 or 50,000 full-length features in my all too brief lifespan. Consequently, no matter how hard I try I’m likely to go to my grave having missed some really, really good films – but at least (thanks to Pacific Film Archive’s new series, The Spanish Mirth) those lost opportunities won’t include the work of Luis Berlanga. 

Born in Valencia, Berlanga (1921-2010) specialized in quirky comedies with a subversive edge. Working throughout the censorious Franco era, Berlanga’s films reflect a cheeky attitude towards authority and deep affection for the people of rural Spain.

The series begins at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, March 29 with 1952’s utterly charming Bienvenido Mister Marshall! Narrated by the great Fernando Rey and filled with delightful characters and wry dialogue supplied by Javier Bardem’s uncle Juan Antonio, the film relates the efforts of the 600-plus residents of tiny Villar del Rio to ingratiate themselves with anticipated American visitors prepared to dole out pieces of the Marshall Plan pie.

A typical small town with an ancient church, a city hall complete with balcony, and a fountain that provides fresh water, Villar del Rio could still use a few improvements. Who better to replace that outdated world map on the schoolhouse wall – the one on which the sun still hasn’t set on the Austro-Hungarian Empire – than Uncle Sam?

Of course, the visitors will want something more than a cold glass of lemonade in return for their investment, and the resourceful villagers (including a theatrical agent played by Manolo Marin, a dead ringer for Zero Mostel) know just what to do: put on a really big show! Constructing a rustic tourist brochure-style village, disguising themselves as matadors and flamenco dancers, and staging a big parade, the townsfolk have surely done enough to earn themselves some Yankee dollars – but will the Americans acknowledge their efforts?

If you enjoy Bienvenido Mister Marshall! (and you will), be sure to make time for Berlanga’s Calabuch, screening at 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, March 31. Shot in 1956 but unreleased until 1958, it’s a gentle but pointed anti-nuclear fable starring Edmund Gwenn (dubbed, and in his last big screen appearance) as a nuclear physicist who takes a break from weapons development by disguising himself as a tramp and settling down in a remote beachside town. It’s number 13,354 on my viewing list. I really do need to pick up the pace.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. It’s a post-your-own calendar so we also encourage you to submit your own events.

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