Out of two of the primary characters in Luis García Berlanga’s The Executioner, one is an undertaker and the other is an executioner, and given the kind of morbid professions they have chosen, one would expect the entire film to revolve around death, but the opposite is true.
While watching it, I was reminded of something a friend of mine told me recently: In real life, hitmen don’t look like they are portrayed in the movies; they look like ordinary human beings, just like you and me. This is true of the undertaker Jose (Nino Manfredi) and the executioner Amadeo (José Isbert) too. Amadeo is a short, harmless looking old man and Jose is an affable gentleman who is simply trying to get by.
The old man is a widower nearing retirement and has a daughter of marrying age at home named Carmen. When he forgets his tool bag one day at the local prison, Jose brings it to his home, and upon seeing Carmen, falls in love. She tells him that guys find her unattractive because of her father’s profession and Jose tells her that girls stay away from because of his profession. They have something in common.
Jose is looking for a new place to move to and on the same day that Amadeo finds out that the state has finally sanctioned an apartment for him, Carmen announces that she wants to get married to Jose, much to the chagrin of her father. However, he has no choice but to agree to this union.
Jose is constantly tormented by the thought of getting that “call” and Amadeo is trying his best to get him to calm down, reminding him that he too used to be like him at one point. Carmen is the opposite of Jose; she is a strong-willed woman who doesn’t care about what society thinks of her and is prepared to deal with anything that life throws at her.
When Jose learns that Amadeo will lose his apartment on account of his pending retirement in two months, he is forced to take on his father-in-law’s job. The last thing on Jose’s mind is to kill someone with his own hands but he reluctantly accepts. Months go by, Carmen gives birth, and Jose still hasn’t received any calls to execute somebody. Life is good so far. When a call finally arrives, Jose is petrified.
What follows is one of the funniest sequences ever staged in the history of cinema. Some critics have noted that the film is a satire; an indictment of death penalty. This may be true but I did not bother to read too much into it because I was caught up in the sitcom-like quality of the story. Most of the film is actually a light-hearted family drama about virtuous people trapped in morbid professions.