Generalissimo Francisco Franco is not dead -- in fact, in the Spanish film "Wait for Me in Heaven," there are two Francos. The second Franco, whose real name is Paulino (played by the Argentine actor Jose Soriano, who also plays the real Franco), is in actuality an overwhelmingly prosaic peddler of orthopedic appliances in Madrid. Because of his uncanny resemblance to the Spanish dictator he is kidnapped by the minister of propaganda (Jose Sazatornil) and held prisoner in the leader's palace and released only for those very special public occasions when he must "become" Franco.

The reason for this, the minister explains, is security. The dictator's life is in constant jeopardy from rebels and unionists. Also, what with visiting dignitaries and all, his schedule is so crowded that he rarely has time to go fishing or watch television with his wife. If Paulino works out as a double, then all the leader's problems are solved.

Paulino turns out to be an amazingly gifted mimic, and the early rehearsal scenes, in which he learns to ape Franco's adenoidal pronouncements, puppet-stringed arm gestures and robotic marching step, are the movie's best. Unfortunately, the film follows an entirely predictable path. Paulino, whose wife and friends believe him to be dead, is at first frightened and then angered by this bizarre forced labor. He misses his wife and his favorite prostitute and is also tired of having to eat only those dishes that are on his leader's menu. The minister, however, keeps the leash tight; nothing that might endanger his project will be allowed. This is Paulino's job -- for life.

If the script, which was written by the film's director, Antonio Mercero, had more inventiveness or simply more laughs, the picture might have made for an amiable diversion. But the scenes are flatly shaped -- they give us only the most fundamental plot points and very little else -- and the performances are drab. This is especially true of Soriano, who might have used the part as an opportunity for soaring, satirical exaggeration (as Richard Dreyfuss did in Paul Mazursky's "Moon Over Parador"), but instead plays the part realistically, as if he were being graded for accuracy. Even when Paulino begins to relish his new stature and ventures out on his own, he seems unreasonably restrained.

Most of the film takes place on the very edge of farce, but Mercero seems reluctant to force the material to the point where it actually becomes comic. There are a few nifty slapstick bits near the end of the film, but they come so late that they're out of keeping with the rest of the material. Satires based on real-life monsters are somewhat touchy, especially when the treatment has a humanizing effect. (The picture was a success everywhere in Europe except Spain, where, supposedly, audiences are not yet ready to laugh about their former dictator's rule.) It's possible that once he'd decided to tackle his subject, the director became cowed by it. Whatever the reasons for his hesitation, this halfway satire comes across as profoundly sheepish stuff.

Wait for Me in Heaven, at the Biograph, is unrated.