Judge Mike Rubino originally thought this movie was an adaptation of the arcade game "Paperboy." He was very mistaken.
"Spanish cinema is politically ineffective, socially false,
intellectually worthless, aesthetically nonexistent, [and] industrially
Juan Antonio Bardem is one of the most influential filmmakers in Spanish history, leading the fight against the authoritarian regime of Francisco Franco and his stifling control over the film industry. Bardem's films, alongside a number of other directors, took over the industry in the 1950s and transformed Spanish cinema into a major art house player. Death of a Cyclist, released in 1955, led the pack.
Facts of the Case
A bourgeois adulteress and her geometry professor lover hit a lower-class bicyclist in the Spanish countryside. Realizing what this crime could do to their reputations—not to mention outing them as a couple—they flee the scene, leaving the man to die.
Their secret doesn't stay dead for long, as an unlikely witness emerges just in time to blackmail the couple. Will their power and money be enough to get them out of trouble? Or will their upper-class selfishness be their undoing?
Juan Bardem was a technically proficient and visually stunning filmmaker who took a liking to the Hollywood star-driven aesthetic. He was also an unabashed Communist who saw film as the perfect way to make political statements. Death of a Cyclist combines both sides of Bardem into a suspenseful thriller about social class and personal responsibility.
Death of a Cyclist is a noir tale about two well-off lovers trying to escape a hit-and-run accident in the Spanish countryside. Bardem establishes early, thanks to some rather expository cocktail parties, that the two lovers, Maria José (Lucia Bosè) and Juan (Alberto Closas), have plenty to lose if they're caught. Maria married into the wealthy arms of Miguel Castro, while Juan was away at war, and found enough money and power to satiate her self-centered demeanor. Meanwhile, Juan is a bump on the log, the black sheep in a family of successful children. He's riding on the coattails of his brother-in-law, who got him a job as an assistant professor of geometry. Unfortunately for them, a middle-class art critic, Rafa, (who happens to be in the same circle of friends merely because of his influence) was a witness that evening. Suddenly, their accident isn't so forgettable.
Bardem uses the death of this anonymous cyclist as a way into the egotistical world of the Spanish bourgeoisie. Much of the film is spent within the upper class, and the characters become specific, known entities indulging in their excessive lifestyles of influence and power. The opposite is true of the lower class, who remain largely anonymous and ignored for much of the film. Maria and Juan killed a cyclist and yet we never see his face, and they never really bother to learn his name. It's this separation from, and ignorance of, the lower class that Bardem wishes to stress as a means of making the audience despise the upper class. None of the characters are all that likeable, and they aren't meant to be. While Bardem borrows much from Hitchcock and Hollywood melodramas, he also borrows from the Italian neorealists, who sought to show society as it was rather than focus on elaborate and false staging. Bardem's focus on the upper class's selfishness and ignorance of the lower class is an exaggerated snapshot of Spanish society in the 1950s. It's an interesting combination that works very well, and in the end is more entertaining than preachy.
On the creative side of things, the film is thoughtful and well-crafted. Bardem employs very specific framing and tight mise en scéne, deciding for us what's important by the size and depth of field of the photography. He also perfects the use of the match cut, in which the film cuts back and forth between two different scenes with the same compositional element or action—someone blows smoke at a party and Bardem cuts to Juan's bedroom just as he, too, releases a puff of smoke. It instantly draws comparisons between the varying situations surrounding the matching actions. Bardem's prowess behind the camera elevates the actors out of the melodramatic Hollywood movie they could be making and into a work of art.
But I don't want to discredit the cast, which is just about perfect. Lucia Bosè is fantastic as the selfish heroine, caught between two men and two lifestyles. Alberto Closas is equally good as the tormented professor. He is able to balance his character's feeling of inadequacy, laziness, moral haziness, and pure lust for Maria without ever skipping a beat. The other actor of note is Carlos Casaravilla, who plays the leeching art critic, Rafa. This critic is a pure scoundrel, but the mind games he plays with Maria are witty and left me wondering just how much information he had to blackmail her.
This Criterion release, which is the first time the movie has been released in America, presents the film in a meticulously remastered and restored package. The transfer notes in the accompanying booklet mention that thousands of grains of dirt and dust were removed from the film, and I believe it. Death of a Cyclist looks very good most of the time, but it seems to suffer some in the exterior shots. The sky flickers and the black levels become more of a washed out gray. Clearly Criterion did the best they could with the transfer, and this doesn't diminish the film in any way, it's just a shame. The audio fairs better, however, with an excellent score by Isidro Maiztegui that punctuates sharply but also knows when to get out of the way.
Accompanying the film is one, lone special feature: a documentary called Calle Bardem. The documentary is fairly long, and consists solely of interviews with various directors, writers and film critics who have either worked with or studied Bardem. Their insights into Bardem's political activism and film career were fairly interesting, but the subtitles, which were white, became hard to read after a while. The release also has a beautifully designed booklet containing an essay by Marsha Kinder and a speech by Bardem, which acted as a call to arms for independent Spanish filmmakers. It's a great package, but I wish there was at least one other special feature specifically centered around the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For as great and suspenseful as the film is, I do have to say that the ending was a tad wacky, even for a melodrama. I can't say too much without spoiling it, but it seemed a little too extreme and overly dramatic to be believable in the context of the film. It's a small gripe that certainly doesn't ruin the movie.
Death of a Cyclist is a great surprise. I had never heard of this film before, and Juan Antonio Bardem (who is Javier Bardem's uncle, by the way) was just a name I knew from a text book. But to see Bardem in action, melding Hollywood traditions with neorealism in a political statement on the class struggles of Franco-Spain is a great experience. Overall, the story is strong and artfully shot, even if the ending is ho-hum. This is an apt Criterion release worth picking up, if only to see how it may have inspired movies made in its wake.
Guilty of being a great piece of Spanish filmmaking.
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Scales of Justice
• "Calle Bardem" Documentary
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