Azcona, Rafael

(1926-2008)
   At the time of his death, Rafael Azcona had almost 100 film credits to his name as Spain's most respected scriptwriter, alone or in collaboration, mostly in Spain and Italy, including substantial work for Marco Ferreri, Luis García Berlanga, Carlos Saura, Pedro Masó, Pedro Olea, Fernando Trueba, José Luis Cuerda, and José Luis García Sánchez. It is safe to say that no one in Spanish cinema has had an impact on so many important productions, and very few have a comparable list of creative input. Thematically, he was something of a postwar period specialist, but more generally he was a keen observer of human foibles, possessing a special empathy for the dignity of the common man in harsh environments.
   Azcona arrived in Madrid in 1951, from Logroño, with the intention of becoming a writer. He spent a few years living in poverty, walking the streets and sitting in cafés, and as he observed ordinary people going about their daily tasks in difficult times, he developed a deep insight into their lives that would become the basis of his later writing. Unable to find steady work, he started collaborations with humor magazines like La codorniz. This led to the publication of a number of short novels, including Los muertos no se tocan, nene (Don't Touch the Corpses, Kid), El pisito (The Little Flat), and El cochecito (The Wheelchair). Although he always acknowledged a basic difference between narrative and scriptwriting (he claimed the scriptwriter's hand had to be "invisible"), some of his recurring themes are already present here: he was a master in the portrayal of "small men" immersed in unjust systems, stories of poverty and survival, generosity in the depiction of character, a sense of life's absurdity (his favorite writer was Franz Kafka), and a developed sense of irony as key to survival.
   All of these elements are present in an early series of collaborations with Italian director Marco Ferreri. Two of them were based on his fiction. In El pisito (1958), an ordinary man (José Luis López Vázquez) is forced to marry his old landlady in order to inherit a flat and live there with his fiancée. El cochecito (1960), starring Pepe Isbert, is one of the best instances of a certain strain of bleak, satiric humor in Spanish film, a farce about an old man who will stop at nothing, not even murder by poisoning, to get himself a motorized wheelchair. He continued to collaborate with Ferreri after the latter's Spanish period in films like La grand bouffe, Ne touchez pas la femme blanche (both 1973) and L'ultima donna (1976). These are also examples of his work for Italian directors, particularly through-out the 1970s.
   His next important collaboration was with Luis G. Berlanga, for whom he wrote his two satiric masterpieces, which are also among the best scripts in Spanish cinema: Plácido (1961) and El verdugo (The Executioner, 1963). The former is a masterful network narrative, developing in one day and chronicling the misadventures of the title character as he tries to get payment for the vehicle he needs for work; the latter portrays a man forced to become an executioner in order to support his family. He also wrote most of Berlanga's post-Franco films, including La escopeta nacional (National Shotgun, 1978), La vaquilla (The Heifer, 1984), and Moros y cristianos (Moors and Christians, 1987).
   Starting in 1967, Azcona began a fascinating collaboration with Carlos Saura in five projects, including Ana y los lobos (Ana and the Wolves, 1972), La prima Angélica (Cousin Angélica, 1973), and the award-winning ¡Ay Carmela! (1990). One can perceive a shift in style: humor and irony become less relevant, observation and attention to the mechanisms of memory more central. For his Saura films, he used his own experience of the postwar period. In the 1980s, Azcona would become the most prominent chronicler of those years in his contributions to Trueba's El año de las luces (Year of Enlightenment, 1986) or José Luis Cuerda's La lengua de las mariposas (Butterfly Tongue, 1999), both centered around young boys struggling with a repressive society. From the mid-1980s, he developed a long collaboration with José Luis García Sánchez, characterized by a more relaxed, sometimes even surreal, approach to humor. In a series of films including La corte del faraón (Pharaoh's Court, 1985) and Tranvía a la Malvarrosa (Streetcar to Malvarrosa, 1996), he continued to chronicle the immediate postwar era with an unmistakable sense of humor. Azcona was also a master of the literary adaptation. Fully aware of the differences between different media, his adaptations tended to be strong rewritings, as in the case of Valle-Inclán's Tirano Banderas (1993). The last film for which he wrote the script was Cuerda's Civil War-set Los girasoles ciegos (The Blind Sunflowers, 2008), another adaptation, for which he won a posthumous Goya award.

Historical dictionary of Spanish cinema. . 2010.

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