The Runaway Nuclear Physicist

Often considered alongside Luis Bunuel as one of the most important and influential Spanish film directors of the 20th century, Luis Garcia Berlanga (1921-2010) and his work is still being discovered in the U.S. Bienvenido, Mister Marshall! (Welcome, Mr. Marshall, 1953), Berlanga’s post-WW2 satire of the European Recovery Plan aka the Marshall Plan, was the first of his films to receive wide distribution at art houses in America and went on to win the International Prize for Best Comedy Film at Cannes. Placido (1961), a black farce in which a homeless man is invited to a Christmas Eve dinner sponsored by a cookware corporation, was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. And El Verdugo (The Executioner, 1963) might be his most famous triumph with Nino Manfredi as an undertaker who is pressured into taking over his father-in-law’s profession as an executioner. The Criterion Collection released a special edition of it on Blu-ray and DVD in 2016, which helped introduce Berlanga’s satiric masterwork to new audiences. Less well known today but praised by critics during its original release in 1956 is Calabuch aka The Rocket from Calabuch, a seemingly gentle but subversive satire about life in a rustic seaside village which is disrupted by the arrival of an amiable but mysterious stranger.

The Italian film poster for CALABUCH (1956) aka The Rocket from Calabuch

Made during Berlanga’s most fertile years as a director – 1953 to 1963 – Calabuch is an affectionate and heartwarming look at small-town life in the manner of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) but, like that film, it has a dark side and the main protagonist, Professor Hamilton (Edmund Gwenn in his final film role), is harboring a secret that has driven him into self-imposed exile. His scientific discovery, the Marelyn Rocket, has been appropriated by the U.S. military for defense purposes and it could very easily be a stand-in for the atomic bomb created by nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer for the Manhattan Project. The implications of this have unsettled Hamilton and he decides to go AWOL during a trip to Europe which throws U.S. officials into a panic. What if he were kidnapped by an enemy of the government?

Professor Hamilton (Edmund Gwenn, left), a nuclear scientist from the U.S., prepares to go swimming in a rustic Mediterranean village in CALABUCH (1956), directed by Luis Garcia Berlanga.

Hamilton resurfaces in the sleepy little Spanish coastal town of Calabuch (a fictional place but filmed in Peniscola in the province of Castellon) where he introduces himself as Jorge and says he ran away from a retirement home. Hamilton comes across like a homeless drifter and he soon gets implicated in a small-time smuggling scheme by two villagers, Juan (Mario Berriatua) and Crescencio (Francisco Bernal). Unable to produce any papers regarding his identity, Hamilton is arrested by the officious town jailer Matias (Juan Calvo) and locked up with Langosta (Franco Fabrizi), the local film projectionist who is nicknamed Lobster and is the mastermind behind a rather innocuous black market operation with Juan and Crescencio.

Professor Hamilton (Edmund Gwenn, left) is locked up with a trumpet playing smuggler named Lobster for not having identity papers in the Spanish comedy CALABUCH (1956).

While newspaper headlines stir up an excess of concern and controversy around the disappearance of Hamilton, the local residents of Calabuch remain blissfully unaware since their remote location is decidedly out of touch with the modern world. Hamilton soon ingratiates himself with the villagers, even winning over Matias, and the bulk of the narrative depicts the incognito nuclear physicist inventing a new, stress free life for himself among strangers who become loyal friends. Hamilton not only volunteers as a janitor for the town school run by Elisa (Valentina Cortese) but he also serves as the church organist and ends up helping Andres (Nicolas D. Perchicot), the town fireworks expert, put on a spectacular pyrotechnic display during an annual festival. Hamilton even creates a rocket that explodes and spells out the words Calabuch in the sky.

Matias (Juan Calvo, left), the village cop, his assistant Fermin (Pedro Beltan, background) and Lobster (Franco Fabrizi), a local smuggler, discuss the presence of a stranger in their town in CALABUCH (1956).

Calabuch is full of the quirky and whimsical touches that are evident in the most delightful “fish out of water” comedies like Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero (1983). A prime example is the scene where an itinerant carnival worker brings his faux matador act to the town festival complete with a tired old bull named Black Mouth. The staged bullfight doesn’t go as planned and the bull ends up chasing its owner and many of the rowdy observers into the surf. Another comedic situation involves the volatile relationship of Don Ramon (Jose Isbert), the lighthouse keeper, and Don Felix (Felix Fernandez), the village priest, who play chess over the telephone and always argue over the outcome.

A bull named Black Mouth turns a staged bullfight into a chaotic joke in the Spanish comedy CALABUCH (1956), directed by Luis Garcia Berlanga.

Equally amusing is the segment where Hamilton takes over as projectionist for Lobster while the latter attends to a smuggling emergency. Hamilton intentionally makes the film go out of focus during the newsreel report of the missing American scientist. The audience responses with agitated cat-calls before the film catches fire and the picture show is effectively shut down by the gleeful projectionist.

When Hamilton isn’t busy helping his new neighbors, he proves to be a good matchmaker, surmising that the lonely schoolteacher Eloisa could be the ideal companion for the carefree but unfulfilled Lobster. Eloisa sees Calabuch as a prison in some ways but Hamilton offers her a different viewpoint as an outsider, saying “here people don’t try to be different from what they really are, nor do they care about what others may think…people live their lives without harming others. If this is not happiness, it must be something very close to it.”

Professor Hamilton (Edmund Gwenn) finds a kindred spirit in Eloisa (Valentina Cortese), the village schoolteacher, in the 1956 Spanish comedy CALABUCH.

Hamilton’s anxiety and guilt over his profession and scientific discovery is never overtly articulated in the course of the film but we sense the man’s desire to find salvation in a place where he can start afresh. Since this is a Luis Garcia Berlanga comedy, we know that a Hollywood happy ending is not in the cards but the bittersweet finale in which the villagers try to prevent a U.S. military convoy from taking Hamilton away from them is quietly moving, much like the poignant finish to the aforementioned Local Hero.  

Some villagers in a small Spanish town on the Mediterranean prepare to launch a rocket in honor of their recent American guest in CALABUCH (1956).

There is a wonderful moment at the end where the American general, who is escorting Hamilton back to the U.S. by helicopter, notices the unspoiled appeal of Calabuch’s lovely Mediterranean setting and asks him if there are any four star hotels in the village for a weekend getaway. The bemused look on Hamilton’s face is priceless as he replies, “No, not a one.”

Professor Hamilton (Edmund Gwenn, left), a nuclear scientist from America, bids farewell to his favorite Mediterranean hideaway as he is escorted by a military official back to the U.S. in CALABUCH (1956).

It is hard to imagine Calabuch without Edmund Gwenn in the pivotal role of Hamilton/Jorge. Even though he is dubbed in Spanish here (and it is an expert dub job), the elderly actor projects benevolence, wisdom and even pathos in his physical movements and gestures. It is surprising that his final feature was made in Spain but Calabuch proves to be a memorable swansong. Most moviegoers know Gwenn from his iconic role as Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street (1947) for which he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Edmund Gwenn plays Kris Kringle opposite little Natalie Wood in the Yuletide favorite, MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947).

His forte was comedy but he could be villainous like the assassin in Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940) and be equally at home in family entertainments (Lassie Come Home, 1943) or literary adaptations (Les Miserables, 1952). Other highlights from Gwenn’s career include the charming counterfeiter in Mister 880 (1950), which garnered him a second Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor, the cautionary scientist in Them! (1954), the best of the giant mutant insect films in the post-atom bomb era, and The Trouble with Harry (1955), Alfred Hitchcock’s often underrated black comedy.

The supporting cast of Calabuca is an outstanding ensemble of European actors and actresses with stand-out roles for Valentina Cortese, Franco Fabrizi, Juan Calvo as the gruff town cop who grows more mellow and likable under Hamilton’s influence and Jose Isbert as the sole lighthouse employee who becomes the heroic gatekeeper of Calabuca in the end (Isbert’s greatest role would arrive a few years later in Marco Ferreri’s El Cochecito (1960) in which he played a neglected senior citizen who desperately wants a motorized wheelchair.)

Cortese, who brings both intelligence and fragility to the cliched stereotype of the spinster schoolmarm who teaches Hamilton about the simple earthly pleasures of growing flowers and plants, has had a long and versatile film career. She began in Italian films of the early forties and moved on to American film noirs (Thieves’ Highway [1949], The House on Telegraph Hill [1951]), art house classics like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Le Amiche (1955) and Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits (1965), a seminal giallo for Mario Bava (The Evil Eye, 1963) and Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973), which earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Valentina Cortese plays an insecure older movie actress in Francois Truffaut’s DAY FOR NIGHT (1973), a role which earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

In the role of Lobster, Fabrizi provides the necessary charisma and charm for a restless character who isn’t cut out for a conventional day job but realizes he needs to have a better future plan before middle age overtakes him. His character is like a more world-weary version of Fausto, the village layabout and gang leader in his major breakthrough film, Fellini’s I Vitelloni (1953). He would go on to work with several internationally renowned directors like Dino Risi, Michael Cacoyannis and Luchino Visconti but also stay busy with more commercial genre fare such as The Death Eye of Ceylon (1962), an action-adventure yarn with ex-Tarzan actor Lex Barker, and the poliziotteschi thriller The Italian Connection (1972). His late career role as a crass variety show host in Fellini’s Ginger & Fred (1986) is considered one of his finest performances.

A variety show host (Franco Fabrizi) introduces the famous dancer Amelia Bonetti (Giulietta Masina) in Federico Fellini’s GINGER & FRED (1986).

As for Luis Garcia Berlanga, he would continue working in film until 2002. Although none of his work after the career peak of The Executioner would attract the same level of international acclaim and popularity as his work in the fifties and sixties, he remains a major figure in Spanish cinema. Among his more noteworthy later work are Grandeur Nature (Lifesize, 1974), a disturbing black comedy in which Michel Piccoli becomes obsessed and increasing possessive of his anatomically correct sex doll, Patrimonio Nacional (1981), a satire about a down and out aristocratic family trying to survive in a post-Franco Spain, and La Vaquilla (1985), a comedy about a platoon of misfit soldiers.

The Spanish film poster for THE EXECUTIONER (1963), directed by Luis Garcia Berlanga

With the exception of The Criterion Collection edition of Berlanga’s The Executioner, none of the director’s other work appears to be available in the U.S. You can buy import versions of his work without English subtitles from online sellers if you have an all-region Blu-ray or DVD player, which is the case with Calabuch. You can also stream Calabuch for free in an excellent English subtitled print at the Cave of Forgotten Films if it is still in their collection.

Other links of interest:

https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20210903-why-berlanga-is-spains-greatest-film-director

https://www.bbvaopenmind.com/en/science/physics/oppenheimer-from-the-atomic-bomb-to-pacifism/

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