by Allan Fish
(Spain 1961 87m) DVD2 (Spain only, no English subs)
Seat a poor man at your table
p Alfredo Matas d Luis Garcia Berlanga w Luis Garcia Berlanga, Rafael Azcona, José Luis Colina, José Luis Font ph Francisco Sempere ed José Antonio Rojo m Miguel Asins Arbó
Cassen (Plácido Alonso), José Luiz López Vázquez (Don Cabino), Elvira Quintilla (Emilia), Manuel Alexandre (Julian Alonso), Mari Carmen Yepes (Martita), Jesus Puche (Don Arturo), José Maria Caffarel (Zapater), Xan de Bolas (Rivas), Amelia de la Torre (Doña Encarna de Galán), Laura Granados (Erika), Lepe (Emilia’s father), José Orjas (notary), Agustin Gonzalez (Alvaro Gil), Carmen Contreras (Vivian), Julia Delgado Caro (Maria Helguera), Antonio Gandia (Pascual), Julia Caba Alba (Concheta), Maria Francès,
As I write I am moving into my eighth year of writing pieces for this work. I’ve just come off the back of the worst sickness I can remember which spoiled the traditional Christmas and New Year festivities. During this time I haven’t written a single piece, stopped dead by a lethargy and insomnia one step short of a coma. Appropriate it is then that the first piece I should write after this malaise is about Luis Garcia Berlanga’s typically savage satirical farce. For this is the spirit of Christmas, as dreamt up by Niccolo Machiavelli, a time of giving, yes, but at a price; always at a price.
The setting is a typically small Spanish town on Christmas Eve where the rich members of the populace, the ruling classes of Franco’s Spain, are being encouraged to show their generous side by taking a poor man or woman off the streets or an elderly person from a home and letting them dine with them as a gesture of kindness. They agree to it, but not out of charity, but out of a desire to be seen to be doing charity. At the same time, a group of actors arrives from the city to take part in another charitable event where they are auctioned off to the highest bidder to have dinner with them on Christmas Eve. Meanwhile, amongst all this, the lowly Plácido of the title, who lives with his family in a ladies toilets where his wife is attendant, has been told he has to pay the second instalment on his ramshackle three wheeled vehicle which he needs to survive. He’s sent back and forth from the notary to get extra money for legal fees, gets caught up in the shenanigans at various rich people’s houses, all in an attempt to secure the funds to stay afloat.
As with his other masterworks, Bienvenido Mr Marshall and El Verdugo, the comedy moves at a breathless pace, as if in tune to the beat of the flamenco, and is surely one of the greatest triumphs of ensemble comedy ever filmed. It’s little wonder that the film ran into censorship troubles – the tagline used above was originally to be the title until the authorities insisted it be changed – for it skewers the ruling class with deadly precision. This is a depiction of sanctimony, of condescension, of extreme patronisation, where the poor are expected to be grateful to be allowed to eat well for a night as solace for not doing so on the other 364 nights of the year and where traditional morality dictates terms at their expense. This is never better realised than in the truly wonderful sequence where one of the deserving poor, Pascual, is taken sick at his hosts’ house, much to their chagrin. From the point the doctor struggles to find his pulse it descends into mayhem as is transpires that he is dying and they need to let his next of kin know. The problem is that the next of kin is another of the said poor, Concheta, being put up with another woman who took her in not realising her lover would be coming round to visit. Things are complicated further when they learn that Pascual and Concheta have been living in sin and they insist they be married immediately. So we go through a gruesomely hilarious sequence where poor Pascual, shaking his head in protestation, is hurriedly married against his will and promptly expires. Essentially, it sums up the tone of the whole piece, cast to perfection, directed with a touch truly Berlanga’s own and with a final line that should be as well known as any in film; “all these wretches are the same.” As potent a statement on the equality of man as could be offered.