It’s hard to believe that Luis García Berlanga made a film nearly as good as The Executioner. Placido isn’t quite there, but it’s also a masterpiece.
The IMDb and FilmStruck summaries do it no favors. Something about “a bunch of old women put together a poor man’s supper…” Yes, that does happen, but it’s really just background for a chaotic, hilarious take on class and a bit of religion in a small Spanish town.
Cassen plays Plácido, owner of a truck who just wants to get paid for his services to Gabino (José Luis López Vázquez) so that he can make a payment on his vehicle and not have it taken away. Vázquez is great as the self-serving Gabino, putting on a sort of auction for Christmas Eve dinners with B-movie stars (the A-movie stars, who were expected, don’t leave home, we learn) and one of the town’s homeless. The whole event is sponsored by Cocinex, a made-up brand, who really just want their cooker publicized.
That latter bit seems like a Berlanga trademark (it was definitely present in La Boutique) – mocking capitalism and advertising (it’s also in Placido in the form of a a contraption to cure Gabino’s cold; I always think of Chaplin and Tati when it comes to these ideas. There’s a sort of fear/mockery of modernism thread).
The main thrust of Placido is saving face. No one wants to look bad in front of anyone else, and so the townspeople all begrudgingly bring a vagabond to dinner. Berlanga’s films aren’t optimistic, though they’re comically dark – and like The Executioner this one gets pretty morbid towards the end.
Religion is also a target: a funeral passes one way as the B-movie star parade passes the other; the town notary is only excited about Christmas Eve mass so that he can get away from the homeless man currently in his apartment; reverence towards a dying man is only so that he can be removed from a family’s flat. Even the could-be-pious star atop Plácido’s car feels more like marketing than the true spirit.
Placido clocks in at one hour and 28 minutes, and I bet the script was less than the standard page/minute. My guess is that Berlanga times out to closer to page/50 seconds. That’s a significant difference, and it’s something I love about the film. Berlanga uses a lot of expertly blocked long takes and he’s so good at using background characters and extras. There’s chaos throughout the entire film – the type of chaos that you can’t really write and just have to direct in. It’s really difficult to make a film this dynamic. The long takes aren’t showy or impressive in their own right, they layer disorder upon disorder making for a really, really fun and funny film.
I’m looking forward to a second watch of Placido because of the secondary characters and their relationships. There are only a few I really caught on the first viewing: the radio man flirting with a maid, the notary complaining to his wife post-auction. I’m sure there are many more that track throughout.
Here’s a look at Berlanga’s blocking. Like in The Executioner he likes starting scenes with extras, but because so many people in the town are important, most of the time he’s actually starting with someone functional to the film, and not a character who’s a complete aside.
This particular scene starts in a high angle shot of the sound mixer. We tilt up and track back, finding Gabino (frame left), Plácido (center), and the radio man (frame right). The latter walks over to plug his device in and Berlanga pans with him:
We then pull all the way back the length of the table with Gabino, land in a temporary wide-shot as Plácido (for about the 10th time in the film) tries to get his money, and then we push back forward as both men walk back down the table. Notice the maids in the background and the homeless man already seated at the table. They’re literally background in every sense, but a lot of the comedy comes from that idea – that they’re back there doing funny things while all of this foreground activity is happening:
Gabino brings us to the crowd of people entering, and then Berlanga shifts the focus of the scene. Plácido is no longer in frame – we’ve forgotten about his just as Gabino has – and instead we’re following the wealthy people (where Gabino’s attention is):
There’s a long bit at the table, which we pan and track over to. This is some of my favorite blocking in the scene. Berlanga just basically steps people forward (the woman in image 2 below brings us, ultimately to image 4 below), and for a moment we’re back into Plácido pleading his case again:
This doesn’t last long as the radio man takes over and (as he’s trying to do all film, so it makes sense here) regains temporary control. His opening and closing to the camera (open, half open, open, closed) is what really controls these frames, along with the B-movie star who is frame left in image 3 below:
It’s all pretty fast, as noted before, and also filled with a motivated, energetic camera, that switches focus rapidly. We’re with Plácido, then with Gabino, then with the radio man, then back to Plácido and so on. Everyone has something to gain from the evening and the camera and blocking has them fighting for space.