Rafael Azcona: 'Belle Epoque' screenwriter

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The Independent Online

During a career of five decades in which he wrote more than 90 screenplays and participated in every great moment in Spanish cinema, Rafael Azcona so honed his skill as a scriptwriter that actors claimed they need read only one line of his to spot him as the author.

Azcona wrote some of Spain's greatest films, including Fernando Trueba's Oscar-winning Belle Epoque (1992), which starred Penélope Cruz; Carlos Saura's Ay, Carmela! (1990), adapted from a successful stage play; and José Luis Cuerda's La Lengua de las Mariposas (Butterfly's Tongue, 1999), an international hit based on a trio of short stories by the Galician writer Manuel Rivas.

An impoverished provincial from the northern city of Logroño, Azcona reckoned he was inspired more by literature than by cinema, and that he didn't go to the pictures much. But he read prodigiously, every night, even after a glass or two, after which he would forget everything and have to re-read.

His early work chronicled the struggle of those at the bottom of a society crushed and humiliated by Franco's dictatorship. He created legions of on-screen losers whose strivings carried the black humour and social satire that streak through centuries of Spain's literature of low life. Azcona's first movie success, El Pisito ("The little flat", 1959), based on his own novel and directed by the Italian Marco Ferreri, tells of a man who longs to set up home with his young fiancée, and finds what he thinks is the perfect solution by marrying a sick old lady so he can inherit her flat.

In another early film, El Cochecito ("The little car", 1960), also directed by Ferreri, an irascible man who covets the electric wheelchair of a handicapped friend robs and poisons his family to get one himself. His 1956 novel Los muertos no se tocan, nene ("The dead are untouchable, kid") similarly charts struggles to survive that border on the subversive.

When Ferreri returned to Italy in the 1960s, Azcona began a long collaboration with the Spanish director Luis García Berlanga. His scripts for Plácido (1961), and El Verdugo (The Executioner, 1963), described sad events with humour and sarcasm in an age when most compatriots endured oppression, poverty and misery as part of their everyday life.

Early schooling by monks produced a profound loathing for the Catholic church. "I remember endless masses, rosaries and being made to feel submissive and miserable." By 14, he reckoned, "I had lost any sense of sin."

He worked in a pharmacy, a sweet factory, as a hotel plumber and accountant, and in a coal merchants, before making the 400km trip to Madrid in 1951. There he spent years tramping the streets, sitting in gloomy cafés, observing the engaging losers who populate his novellas and films. He joined the legendary satirical magazine of the Fifties El Cordoniz, every edition of which was a nailbiting exercise in dodging the censor, until Ferreri brought him into film.

The son of a tailor, Azcona wrote and rewrote his scripts to make them as natural as possible: "invisible, like the stitching of a bespoke suit", he used to say. Actors claimed he tailor-made his scripts to fit them. He left school early and taught himself scriptwriting, and coined his golden rule: "Try not to write the first thing that occurs to you because it's very possible that someone else has already thought of it." He held script conferences in cafés, long conversations in public places where the human raw material was constantly on show.

He co-wrote the screenplay for Ferreri's greatest hit La Grande Bouffe (Blow-out). When Azcona handed in the script, the producer Jean Paul Rassan contacted him to pay twice what he had promised. And when the film, about unbounded appetites and excess, was premiered at Cannes in May 1973, it created uproar, with critics denouncing it as depraved and immoral. It was a box-office triumph.

Azcona, with his gentle, easygoing manner, shunned big parties and official functions. He preferred to stay in the background, slip away and write. Azcona's long-term collaborator José Luis Cuerda is completing the film based on his last script, Los girasoles ciegos ("Blind Sunflowers"), to be released posthumously.

Azcona was never afraid of death: "We are born and we die. That's it."

Elizabeth Nash

Rafael Azcona Fernández, scriptwriter and novelist: born Logroño, Spain 24 October 1926; married Susan Youldeman (two sons); died Madrid 24 March 2008.