This masterpiece of black humor, beloved in Spain but too little seen elsewhere, threads a scathing critique of Franco-era values through a macabre farce about an undertaker who marries an executioner’s daughter and reluctantly takes over her father’s job so the family can keep their government-allotted apartment. As caustic today as it was in 1963, this early collaboration between Luis García Berlanga and his longtime screenwriter Rafael Azcona is an unerring depiction of what Berlanga called "the invisible traps that society sets up for us." A furiously funny personal attack on capital punishment, The Executioner escaped the state censors who sought to suppress it, and today is regarded as one of the greatest Spanish films of all time.
One of the best television shows ever made was HBO's 'Six Feet Under', which combined a highly emotional rollercoaster along with some very dark humor in its five seasons. We became truly attached to those characters and felt a part of this non-traditional, yet very relatable family. The center on that series was that this family's business was a full-scale funeral home, where they conducted business on the ground floor and lived a seemingly normal happy life just upstairs in the same place. The series took a very black humorous approach to the taboo subject of death and grieving, complete with faux commercials of preserving the deceased to picking out advertising casket walls. 'Six Feet Under' surely pushed the bounds and made us glad that we crossed our gentle thresholds of emotions.
Back in 1963, Spanish filmmaker Luis Garcia Berlanga and his long time collaborating writer Rafael Azcona did something very similar in the feature film world, some forty years before HBO aired one of their most popular and award winning series. Berlanga and Azcona made a film called 'The Executioner', formally titled 'Not On Your Life', which is a brilliant black comedy film about an undertaker and executioner's daughter who fall in love, where both inherit the "family" business against their will, much like Nate Fisher did in 'Six Feet Under'.
'The Executioner' is deemed by audiences, critics, and experts alike in being one of the best Spanish films of all time. They wouldn't be lying either, as Berlanga and Azcona perfectly concted a story that is genuine, funny, and bittersweet all at the same time, while having underlying themes of the death penalty and politics related to prison. The film follows a young man named Jose who is good undertaker, but dreams of being a mechanic, due to women and people being scared to date or be with him due to his unsavory profession. He's a lonely, yet good man. Jose crosses paths with Amadeo, who is an elder executioner looking to retire.
His beautiful daughter Carmen suffers from the same social engagements as Jose, in that no men will give her the time of day, due to her father's employment. It seems like a match made in heaven for the two lonely people to get together and get married, and live happily ever after. It seems all well and good until Jose is basically forced to take over Amadeo's job as executioner. There is a light feel in the air with this movie as dark comedic elements pop up quite often, while secretly examining the taboo subjects that we as people don't feel all too comfortable discussing, such as death. The film takes turns in making you laugh and think about the political system and death penalty as Jose is forced to do something he doesn't want to do, where in turn becomes more like the victim, kicking, screaming, punching his way to not be an executioner. The performances are excellent and realistic with some top notch filmmaking and a brilliant script that will keep your mind on this film for days.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Executioner' comes with a 50GB Blu-ray Disc from Criterion that is Region A Locked with the spine #840. The disc is housed in a clear, hard plastic case with a fold out booklet from the film as well as an essay from David Cairns.
'The Executioner' comes with a great 1080p HD transfer presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio. According to Criterion booklet, this is a new digital transfer that was created in 4K resolution from the 35mm original camera negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed. This film is over fifty years old and looks amazing with this Criterion transfer.
The detail is sharp and vivid throughout with excellent closeups revealing individual hairs, and great stitching in the 1960's wardrobe. Wide shots never go soft either and gives this pristine picture some great depth. The black and white color scheme is extremely well-balanced with nuanced grays and whites throughout. There is nice layer of grain, keeping with the filmic look too. There were no major issues with any banding, aliasing, or any other video noise problem, leaving this video presentation with top marks.
This release comes with a Spanish LPCM 1.0 mix that does a great job from top to bottom. According to the Criterion booklet, the original monaural soundtrack was remastered from the 35mm optical soundtrack negative where clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. The ambient noises and sound effects are full and never overly done.
The score always adds to the tone of the film and never drowns out any other sound aspect. The dialogue is crystal clear and easy to follow along with the English subtitles. When many different sounds are echoing at once during the movie, there can be a hint of the tin-can effect, but it never deters from the film experience.
The Bad Spaniard (HD, 57 Mins.) - This is a great look at the filmmaker Luis Garcia Berlanga, as interviews with his son, other filmmakers and writers, and critics discuss his life and career.
The Invisible Half (HD, 29 Mins.) - This is an excerpt from a 2012 Spanish program where some archival clips of Berlanga and others discussing 'The Executioner' can be seen, as he discusses the tone, themes, and censoring that happened during the filmmaking.
Interview with Pedro Almodovar (HD, 4 Mins.) - Here is a new extra with filmmaker Pedro Almodovar (Bad Education, Volver, I'm So Excited) talking about why 'The Executioner' is one of his favorite movies.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 4 Mins.) - Trailer for the film that shows a lot.
Criterion Booklet - A fully illustrated fold out booklet with cast and crew information, as well as technical information on this release. An essay by David Cairns is included here too about the film.
'The Executioner' is one of those rare films that perfectly captures the dark comedy and emotional aspects of taboo subjects that we are afraid to discuss in daily life. The characters are relatable with a lot of charm too. It's just unfortunate to see what their lives have planned out for them in a most unsavory, yet comical way. This film is truly one of the greats and is highly re-watchable. The video and audio presentations are both great and the extras are all worth watching. Criterion has knocked this out of the park for sure and is highly recommended!