Plácido (1961)

Placido, a 1961 Spanish Christmas film by Luis García Berlanga satirizing performative charity, places me in an awkward position in which my opinion and appraisal of the movie are very different from the experience I had watching it. To be clear, this is a fantastic film - my issues are not with the movie, at all. The problem is me, and unfortunately, I expect a lot of people would run into a similar issue, which is why I can't quite recommend it to most of you.

The problem is one of translation, and it's not the issue you're probably expecting. But before I go on, I will say it doesn't apply if you're able to speak the language. If that's the case and you're a fan of movies from this era (or most eras, really - the comedy here is pretty timeless), by all means track this down at once.

But as for the rest of my fellow dumb Americans (or British or whoever else stumbles across this blog), you'll probably want to read on. Because, while I think the movie's good, it's a rare case where I just don't think subtitles are effective.

[For context, I am an adamant proponent of subtitles and have been known to wait years to watch movies rather than tolerate dubbing. Not that I think dubbing would be better here.]

Let me back up.

The dialogue in Placido is lightning quick and layered, with characters constantly talking at cross-purposes, speakers shifting, and people speaking over each other to humorous effect. It's extremely clever and genuinely funny.

At the same time, the movie is using its setting to highlight to explore the absurdity of the world around it. We're shown a Christmas parade rolling through neighborhoods that have yet to recover from war, a radio announcer describing one thing while a completely different reality unfolds in front of him, and the rich celebrating their display of generosity to the poor while ignoring people in poverty in front of them. On top of that, Berlanga makes use of long unbroken cuts in which the camera shifts around a massive gathering, moving from one conversation to the next seamlessly. The camera work and direction are fantastic.

But because both the dialogue and filmmaking are so complex, following along via subtitles starts to feel a little like work. For what it's worth, I was able to follow the story, I appreciated the humor, and I was impressed with the filmmaking on display... but because I needed to spend so much energy looking back and forth just to determine which character was saying which line (kind of hard when more than one are speaking at once), my appreciation was mostly cerebral. The experience was more an act of analysis than of being pulled into the world, despite that world being expertly crafted.

Again, this isn't the movie's fault. It was made to be watched in Spanish, and I have no doubt it hits differently when the timing, staging, and performances all line up. I could follow along close enough to see these elements were all fantastic, but there was a disconnect between what I was observing and experiencing. If I could watch this a few more times, I suspect the components would snap into place despite the subtitles.

With all that out of the way, let's talk about the story. The movie's titular character is a driver trying to make his first payment on the vehicle he needs to do his job. However, it's Christmas Eve, bank fees mean he needs slightly more than he expected, and his employer needs him to use said vehicle to drive a float in the parade celebrating a corporate-sponsored event in which families are encouraged to invite a poor person into their homes for a holiday meal. As various obstacles complicate Placido's attempts to gather and pay his bill, problems arise in the event, threatening to turn a marketing ploy into a public-relations disaster. The wealthy people around Placido are fixated on appearing generous, but show no real compassion.

This comes to a head towards the end when an elderly poor man grows ill and eventually dies in the home of one of the promotion's organizers. Placido is drafted into strapping the dead man to the Christmas parade float still connected to his truck and driving him home so as not to embarrass the rich family. As a result of all this, he finally gets the means to pay off his bill, though in the process discovers a clerical error would have meant that the scenario he feared all along - his vehicle and livelihood being impounded - wouldn't have come to pass. The movie ends with him returning home and his wife casually remarking they'll be in the same situation the following month.

It's worth noting the movie doesn't just single out the rich as the problem - no one shows more than the tiniest shred of compassion to their fellow human throughout the movie. Placido comes closest when he expresses concern for the widow of the man who died, but even he's unwilling to spend more than a few moments consoling her. While the film makes a point of criticizing the rich, its main target is a culture that feigns values of humility and kindness but is actually self-serving and vain.

To that end, Christmas serves as a constant symbol of both the ideals the characters are professing to hold, as well as their shortcomings. It's a great use of the holidays made even more poignant by the movie's refusal to betray its convictions with some last-minute miracle.

This is absolutely a great film, but I can only imagine how satisfying it must be to watch as intended. And, just to be clear, I did still enjoy seeing it in translation - I laughed at various jokes, was invested in Placido's quest, and found the unlikeable characters fun to watch - but there's no denying I found myself in a state of disappointment observing something this great from what felt like a distance.

I'm still tacking on the "Highly recommended" label for this, because at this point we mostly use it to tag stuff that's really damn good, and... yeah, this is really damn good. But if you're looking for a comedy you can kick back and enjoy without a lot of effort, this isn't going to give you what you're looking for unless you can speak the language.