Welcome Mr Marshall!


Reviewed by: Rebecca Naughten

Welcome Mr Marshall
"A lot of the film's subversiveness comes from the juxtaposition between what the narrator says (and you can almost hear the chuckle in Rey's voice) and what we see."

The first full-length feature directed by Luis García Berlanga on his own - his previous film, That Happy Couple (Esa pareja feliz) was co-directed by Juan Antonio Bardem - Welcome Mr Marshall! (Bienvenido Mr Marshall!) sees the poverty-stricken Spanish village of Villar del Río put on its best face in the hope of attracting the munificence of a delegation of Americans in charge of the European Recovery Plan (a.k.a. the Marshall Plan).

That Spain was excluded from the Marshall Plan - they had not overtly participated in the Second World War, but had backed the fascists and were now under a dictatorship - was already known when the project was conceived, which is the first indication that undercurrents of subversion are readily found within the film. Britain's Ealing comedies are perhaps the closest comparison to the combination of underlying social critique and crowd-pleasing comedy performed by popular performers (Berlanga developed something of a stock company - many of the actors in this film recur across the others showing as part of the Berlanga and Bardem retrospective at the Leeds International Film Festival).

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It feels like a very modern film for the time - in the opening sequence, the narrator (a wonderfully wry Fernando Rey) pauses the film and removes the characters so as to better survey the locale ("I think [the church] dates from...well, it's pretty old") before introducing the main characters one by one - but also one that was made with one eye on the censor. Taken at face value, much of the narration can be heard as supporting the status quo (a line towards the end reminds us that hard work - and not magic - is the path to a comfortable life) but a lot of the film's subversiveness comes from the juxtaposition between what the narrator says (and you can almost hear the chuckle in Rey's voice) and what we see.

Onscreen is a colourful and cacaphonic rabble - including don Pablo the Mayor (José "Pepe" Isbert), the village priest (Luis Pérez de León), the local aristocrat (Alberto Romea), Miss Eloisa the teacher (Elvira Quintillá), and a visiting Andalusian songstress (Lolita Sevilla) and her agent (Manolo Morán) - who nonetheless pull together to try to win the village the next best thing to having the railroad finally connect them to prosperity. Agent-cum-entrepreneur Manolo (who knows Boston "like the back of my hand") presents himself as the perfect candidate to appeal to the "noble but infantile mentality" of the Americans, and sets about putting on a show to give Villar del Río the edge over other villages in the vicinity. That this show involves dressing up a Castilian village as Andalusia - walls and street fronts are erected like a film set, the villagers dressed in hired traditional Andalusian attire (all done on credit) - is a barbed commentary on Francoist mythmaking, but the "masquerading for gifts" as aristocrat don Luis disparagingly describes it does not leave the Americans untarnished either (both the KKK and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) make appearances).

Chief among the delights of the film is a sublime - and justly celebrated - dream sequence that casts Isbert's selectively-deaf Mayor as a gunslinger in the Old West (his fondness for the Westerns shown at the local picturehouse has already been conveyed to us by the narrator) with all dialogue rendered as incomprehensible noise (a representation of his deafness? Or what English sounds like to don Pablo?). Berlanga keeps the dreams and hopes of real people in sight - whether Hollywood-infused or the way one impoverished villager dreams of the hitherto unknown luxury of owning a tractor - but signals that reality will alway intrude, and all debts must be paid. Ultimately he refuses to give his fable - or the villagers - a straightforwardly happy ending that might have allowed the targets of his critique off the hook.

Reviewed on: 09 Nov 2014
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A small Spanish village is thrown into disarray by the news that a delegation of Americans is on its way, bringing the possibility of untold riches.

Director: Luis García Berlanga

Writer: Juan Antonio Bardem, Luis García Berlanga, Miguel Mihura

Starring: José Isbert, Fernando Rey, Lolita Sevilla, Elvira Quintillá, Manolo Morán, Alberto Romea, Luis Pérez de León

Year: 1953

Runtime: 78 minutes

Country: Spain


Leeds 2014

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