Because of its political alliances with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, after the Axis defeat in 1945 Spain became a pariah in democratized Europe. The reactionary tendencies in Spanish culture that resulted from this isolation changed with the US binational treaty of 1951, which coincided with the reorganization of Franco's cabinet that established a film office in the Ministry of Information and Tourism. The office's director, José María García Escudero, championed José Antonio Nieves Conde's film Surcos ( Furrows , 1951), granting it a "special interest" subsidy, only to find the voices of old-guard conservatism condemning the film's "sordid" neorealist visual style and social content. Opponents argued that Juan de Orduña's historical epic of Columbus's journeys to the New World, Alba de América (American Dawn, 1951), was a more appropriate reflection of national values. The scandal eventually led to García Ecudero's departure from his post. The rest of the decade was, in fact, a replay of the clash between conservative and modernizing forces within the government and the film industry.
The persistence of traditionalist cultural values was reflected in the popularity of melodramatic, pseudoreligious films during the early 1950s, best epitomized by the most widely acclaimed work of this reactionary genre: Ladislao Vajda's Marcelino, pan y vino ( The Miracle of Marcelino , 1955). The film owes its popularity as much to the presence of the child actor Pablito Calvo as to the presumed religiosity of its narrative and theme. Other child actors who sustained similar box-office appeal for otherwise negligible films include Marisol (Pepa Flores) and Joselito.
The Spanish brand of contemporary comedy, which had endured throughout the previous decade, now became a vehicle for veiled social criticism of the regime's policies. The earliest example of this potent genre is the debut film of Juan Antonio Bardem (1922–2002) and Luis García Berlanga (b. 1921), Esa pareja feliz ( That Happy Pair , 1953), a light comedy that highlighted the hard economic times of the early 1950s in the travails of a newlywed couple. While Bardem went on to specialize in more political works, such as the tense melodrama Muerte de un ciclista ( Age of Infidelity , 1955), Berlanga's career evolved through ingenious social comedies. Bienvenido, Mister Marshall ( Welcome, Mister Marshall , 1953), the most beloved Spanish popular film of the past half-century, is a satirical look at cultural mores and the ineptitude of the regime; Los Jueves, milagro ( Miracles of Thursday , 1957) satirizes church bureaucracy and false miracles. Berlanga's subsequent social comedies, Plácido (1961) and El verdugo ( The Executioner , 1963), take sharp aim at institutionalized charity and the Spanish style of execution, respectively. Thus, over the decade, the narrative and visual style of one of Spain's most beloved filmmakers moved to progressively more scathing indictments of the spirit and everyday practices of Francoist culture.
Working with Berlanga's script collaborator, Rafael Azcona, Italian-born Marco Ferreri (1928–1997) created two of the blackest social comedies of the period: El pisito (The Little Apartment, 1959) and El cochecito ( The Wheelchair , 1960). Social criticism in these films was rooted in the Spanish variation of Italian neorealism, which often used black humor to portray the long-suffering working class and the economic hardships to which they had become conditioned. This tendency achieves its blackest images in Ferreri's The Wheelchair , in which an old pensioner poisons his family after they prevent him from buying a motorized wheelchair. Veering away from the comedic genre, Carlos Saura's (b. 1932) debut feature, Los golfos ( The Delinquents , 1962), arguably the strongest expression of Spanish neorealism, depicts the plight of youthful members of the urban underclass whose sense of frustration in late-1950s Madrid leads them to petty robberies. Seemingly disconnected from Ferreri's or Berlanga's middle-class characters, Saura's protagonists nonetheless reveal a spiritual kinship to the same defiant spirit of social criticism that mark the neorealist comedies of the period.