An untold story: the relationship between Luis García Berlanga and the San Sebastian Festival
Historiak, 8 
Director Luis García Berlanga with actor Francisco Javier Martín

In the heat of the celebrations surrounding the centenary of Luis García Berlanga’s birth, we could enter the realm of those who tacitly assume that the San Sebastian Festival would have helped to disseminate the films of the director from Valencia, thereby influencing the consolidation of one of Spanish cinema’s great figures.

However, the truth of the matter is that the Festival never programmed Berlanga in its Official Selection. Neither when the selection of competing films was made through bureaucratic channels by means of the suggestions considered by each participating country to be representative of their cinematography, a trend repeated throughout the international festival circuit in the fifties and sixties, nor later, when the figure of the programmer gained popularity and the Festival had a variety of art directors.

The circulation of Berlanga’s films abroad, and what is probably responsible for his international recognition today, was largely the work of two festivals: Cannes and Venice. ¡Bienvenido, Míster Marshall! (Welcome, Mr. Marshall,1953), Plácido (1961), ¡Vivan los novios! (Long Live the Bride and Groom,1970) and Patrimonio nacional (National Heritage,1981) were screened for the first time in the Côte d’Azur, while Calabuch (1956) and El verdugo (The Executioner, 1963) competed in the city of canals, where they respectively landed the OCIC (International Catholic Film Office) Grand Prix and the FIPRESCI Prize, awarded by the international federation of film critics.

During its first two premieres at foreign festivals, San Sebastian programmed in its quota of competing Spanish films works loyal to the regime, such as Rafael Gil’s La guerra de Dios (I Was a Parish Priest) and Ladislao Vajda’s Carne de horca (Condemned to Hang). From the 60’s onwards, whilst Berlanga continued to promenade his canisters around the different festivals and bring his work into the international arena, the selection of Spanish films made at the same time by the San Sebastian Festival for its Official Selection changed tack to adopt a very different strategy to its previous one, which had been dictated by the upper echelons of the Franco regime, led by the military officer José María García Escudero: the New Spanish Cinema operation. An ace up its sleeve, systematically controlled, which the Administration would play to give the impression of cleaning up its act and project a more liberal image outside its borders.    

In 1955 García Escudero was one of the main figures of the Salamanca Conversations at which the ground rules were laid for many of the decisions which, in his second phase as Director General of Cinematography and Theatre, in 1962, he would make in his mission to lend a kinder face to a dictatorship in the eyes of the west. Among them, the belief that the industrial and aesthetic revamping of Spanish cinema should be delivered by students from the Official Film School (EOC); Berlanga refused to sign the conclusions or back the decisions of said meeting. 

The School, that “hive of reds”, as it was openly referred to at the council of ministers as recalled by the researcher Asier Aranzubia, had to be both controlled and strategically subsidised. Many of the filmmakers used the new regulations and the special interest of the Administration to introduce a certain “dissidence” to their films, even if always metaphorically ensconced. Here one clear-cut example is the allegoric narrative of La caza made by Saura on his graduation from the EOC. Saura was joined by the new spate of movies produced by the other graduates, among others, Patino, Eceiza, Erice, Egea and Regueiro, who gradually started to appear at international festivals, in turn becoming the leading representatives of Spanish cinema at the San Sebastian Festival.

For the Director General, those non-conformist films, whose circulation served as a strategy of foreign policy and economy, were easier to control than the booming costumbrista comedies with their “hidden messages”. Thus, filmmakers like Berlanga and Bardem were doubly and systematically excluded from all official representations. They constituted a nuisance for being costumbrista comedies packed with political-social criticism while playing no part whatsoever in any supposed aesthetic revamp devised to bolster the regime’s international window-dressing designs.

Among the disagreements, mainly on the subject of programming, to take place between the Festival and Berlanga, we must recall one unusual occurrence. From 6-9 July 1960, the I International Film Schools Conference was held at the San Sebastian Festival, directed by Antonio de Zulueta Besson. The sessions were attended by the delegations of Spain, France, Mexico, Poland, the Netherlands, Italy, Belgium and Japan.

As reported in the Festival daily, the Spanish delegation’s programme included both “practical school work” and “professional” films, such as Berlanga’s ¡Bienvenido, Míster Marshall!, shown for the first time in San Sebastian seven years on from its premiere at Cannes. The film was screened alongside Habitación de alquiler, by Miguel Picazo; Tarde de domingo, by Basilio Martín Patino; El señorito Ramírez, by Francisco Prosper; El viejecito, by Manuel Summers and En el río, by José Luis Borau. 

Letter from Luis García Berlanga to the Festival director, Francisco Ferrer Monreal (June 23, 1961). San Sebastian International Film Festival Archive

Berlanga, invited in his capacity as first graduate of the Institute of Cinematographic Investigation and Experience (IIEC), as well as presenting his by then classic film and participating in the heated discussions, gave a talk entitled “Public Audience on Spanish Cinema”. On the last day he made a speech in which he asked for the conclusions to include his suggestion of inviting former students of the schools to future conferences and for the competitive slant from the meetings between students to be done away with.

As described in the research made into the I International Film Schools Conference by Noemí Cuetos and Marcela Hinojosa on the basis of documents from the San Sebastian Festival archives as part of the “Zinemaldia 70: all the possible stories” project, the outcome of those sessions had internal and external consequences. Following one of the recesses, the Spanish delegation wrote and delivered a second speech triggered by the ill-judged interventions of several of the regime journalists. In that speech, a number of students, mainly Basilio Martín Patino, Antxon Eceiza and Joaquín Jordá, vehemently and painstakingly dissected the different types of censorship that made their work impossible, from diplomatic to that meted out by the Vertical Syndicate.

Months after the end of what had been the Festival’s eighth edition, its director Antonio de Zulueta resigned from his position. As indicated in the research, the commotion of those Conferences was important given its contribution to the debates that drove García Escudero, who had been present at them, to approve a new code of censorship in 1963. Said reform offered narrow optimistic windows enabling the incorporation of EOC students to the film industry, strengthening (and controlling) the aforementioned New Spanish Cinema operation, as had been predicted by those Salamanca Conversations. The same conversations whose results Berlanga had refused to sign due to the fact that certain decisions would have the effect of rendering his filmmaking style invisible.

As demonstrated by the handwritten letters recently found in the Festival archives, Berlanga refused the invitation to return to the II International Film School Conferences held in 1961, under the supervision of Francisco Ferrer Monreal (administrator, at that time, of the Victoria Eugenia Theatre), who had succeeded Antonio de Zulueta as the Festival director. The filmmaker continued to attend the following editions of the event as a simple guest. 

After the dictator’s death, in 1977 the Festival recovered Berlanga in the “Informative” section (the genesis of today’s Perlak section), where it made space for his film Tamaño natural (Life Size,1974).

Forty-four years down the line from what would be his last appearance at the event, this year the San Sebastian Festival will pay homage to the filmmaker in his centenary with a double bill featuring the restored copies of Esa pareja feliz (That Happy Couple,1951), co-directed with Juan Antonio Bardem, and La muerte y el leñador (Death and the Lumberjack,1962).

In the light of the Klasikoak programme, whose screenings could never be deemed to represent historical reparation, the Festival has activated an interest in recovering that enormously valuable passage, which obliges a critical rethink of the event’s relationship (or lack of it) with a filmmaker who is now, indisputably, a landmark in the history of Spanish cinema.