Film Reviews

Death of a Cyclist Juan Antonio Bardem

Rating - 7/10

A lonely cyclist returning from work peddles along a thin country road, only to be accidentally struck by an oncoming car speeding along the narrow, slick asphalt. Laying beneath his crumpled bicycle, the man is barely alive. A man and a woman exit the vehicle and sprint toward the injured victim. Returning from an adulterous rendezous, the car’s occupants, Juan a mathematics professor (Alberto Closas) and Maria Jose a wealthy socialite, begin to contemplate their next move. Fearing discovery and scandal, the couple flee the scene, leaving the ailing cyclist behind to perish on the wet roadside. The psychological after-effects of their decision constitute the remainder of Juan Antonio Bardem’s celebrated 1955 film Death of a Cyclist (Muerte de un Ciclista)

Bardem, who incidentally was an uncle of Academy Award winning actor Javier, was one of the fieriest directors working in Francoist Spain. Throughout the Fifties, Bardem was a key figure in the development of a new Spanish national cinema dedicated to producing Neo-Realistic social criticisms, rather than continuing the tired cycle of folkloric costume dramas preferred under Franco’s dictatorship.

In 1953, Bardem founded a key film journal (Objectivo) which elevated film criticism in Spain, before being banned for its discussion of prohibited films. In 1955, the same year Death of a Cyclist was released, Bardem denounced the state of Spanish cinema at the Salamanca Congress along with other directors, who called for greater social criticism and experimentation in Spanish cinema in defiance of Franco’s censors. Bardem even went so far as to claim "Spanish cinema is politically ineffective, socially false, intellectually worthless, aesthetically nonexistent, [and] industrially crippled."

By the end of the decade, Bardem had started a production company called UNINCI that enabled Luis Buñuel to return from his twenty-nine year exile to make his 1961 religious satire Viridiana. Despite the script having somehow been passed by Franco’s censors, the finished film was quickly banned and UNINCI was disbanded. A committed Communist, Bardem was also jailed several times for his political beliefs, including a stint in jail whilst Death of a Cyclist garnered the International Critics Prize at Cannes. Unsurprisingly, Bardem’s ideological input is firmly embedded into his work.

The Death of a Cyclist operates on two levels. The primary narrative works within the visual and contextual tropes of Noir. Upon returning to Madrid, guilt and fear psychologically besiege the couple. The decision to have left the cyclist affects Juan in particular; who simultaneously becomes embroiled in an ethical conflict with a student at the university where he teaches. Juan wishes to confess his role in the cyclist's death, but is held back by his lover Maria Jose.

Married to Miguel (Otello Toso) a powerful industrialist, Maria Jose owes her wealth and privilege to him. Before the Spanish Civil War, Maria Jose was Juan’s sweetheart. Rather than waiting for him to return, Maria Jose opted for the financial and political security Miguel’s family could provide in post-Spanish Civil War society. Consequently unlike Juan, Maria Jose is not morally perturbed by their inaction, but rather frets over losing her lavish lifestyle. Matters worsen for Maria Jose when Rafa (deliciously played by Carlos Casaravilla), a smarmy art critic and guest at Miguel’s parties, attempts to bribe the couple, after he viewed the pair driving along the same road where the cyclist was killed.

The film’s sub-narrative, which informs Juan’s moral transformation, is framed through the Christian-Marxist gaze of Italian Neo-Realism. For Juan, a former anti-Fascist soldier during the Spanish Civil War, the cyclist’s death proves a turning point in his life. Returning from the war a hollowed out man, Juan scarcely believes in anything until his tragic interaction with the now deceased cyclist. Having taken place on a stretch of road carved through a former Spanish Civil War battlefield, the cyclist's place of death serves to assist in the revival of Juan's lost ideals. Following the incident, Juan begins to re-kindle a sense of moral and spiritual goodness within him. He tracks down the victim’s family to their dilaptated apartment complex and begins to realize the divisive nature of Francoist society.

Social divisions play an important role in The Death of a Cyclist. The gulf between the poor classes evoked by the cyclist and the affluent classes is specifically addressed in terms of social (in)justice. Whereas the cyclist’s widow lives in a cramped and run-down tenement, Maria Jose resides in a lavish mansion. Miguel’s name and wealth afford her protection from scandal, while the cyclist’s widow has to scamper around Madrid for her husband’s insurance claim in order to survive. Thus, Bardem presents Francoist Spain as a divided society, in which the wealthy and politically fortunate are conceviably above the law due to their prosperity and connections.

Thematically, the film is also a scathing indictment of upper class greed, materialism and selfishness. Featuring opulent parties and spiritually empty aristocrats not far removed from the work of either Antonioni or Buñuel, The Death of a Cyclist utilizes two characters in particular to embody the moral decay of Spanish society. With her overt selfishness and excessively materialistic trappings, Maria Jose exemplifies the post-Civil War Spanish citizen who has forsaken the aims of the Republic by becoming placated by affluence and objects.

In The Death of a Cyclist, the piano-playing art critic Rafa becomes representative of a bourgeois populace willing to extort the rich, rather than strive for justice. Rafa truly embodies the purpose of his profession: an observer extracting information, promoting opinions and offering blunt criticisms to others. A collector of secrets, the gossipy Rafa gathers this data to further his own agenda and to provide self-amusement. Both he and Maria Jose subsequently emerge as figures antithetical to the pre-Francoist Republican spirit Juan comes to epitomize.

Nevertheless, Bardem’s emphasis on the politicized nature of Juan’s rebirth has its drawbacks. Principally, the film’s subplot involving Juan’s academic fracas with Matilde (Bruna Corra), an embittered mathematics student, is flimsy in its construction. Although Bardem attempts to equate Juan’s revitalized spirit with Matilde’s youthful energy, their strong intellectual connection is undermined by the thinness of their confrontational encounter, which furthers Juan's moral regeneration. Despite highlighting Juan's renaissance, Bardem’s repeated return to their languid situation stagnates any insight into the changing characteristics of the film’s other central figures, Maria Jose and Miguel.

Released in America under the title The Age of Infidelity, The Death of a Cyclist was censured by prominent critics such as The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther for its then audacious proto-Nouvelle Vague employment of self-conscious editing techniques such as jump cuts and match cuts. Yet, Margarita Ochoa’s editing flourishes provide The Death of a Cyclist with a freshness and stylishness, which in connection to Alfredo Fraile’s stark black and white cinematography, offers Bardem’s work a unique, aesthetic vision.

Fusing the Christian-Marxist social humanist spirit of Neo-Realism with the dark textures of Noir, Juan Antonio Bardem's Death of a Cyclist is at times a fascinating visual and contextual experience. A scathing critique of the egotistical Spanish haute bourgeoisie, Death of a Cyclist also acted as one of the first major Spanish films to question the polarizing effects of the Spanish Civil War on the national psyche. Aside from a few lethargic segments, Death of a Cyclist still continues to be riveting and relevant in its insights into greed, morality and justice.