Muerte de un cliclista/Death of a Cyclist is a salutary reminder that even under the most totalitarian of regimes protest is possible. But Juan Antonio Bardem’s triumph is not only due to his making a Communist film at the height of the Franco regime: this film also has a remarkable way of framing the action, quite extraordinary compositions in 4:3 ratio (see below), an evocative use of space, original modes of cutting, and a way of building scenes to daringly extreme close-ups, rhythmically, in a way that conveys all the necessary story information whilst creating tension. It’s not only a landmark in Spanish cinema but a great film tout court.
In his autobiography, Y todavía sigue: Memorias de un hombre de cine, Bardem insists the film is based on Tolstoy’s Resurrection (p.204). But it bears more than passing similarities to Antonioni’s Cronaca di un amore, which Bardem had by then seen and subsequently acknowledged as an influence: Juan (Alberto Closas) and Maria José (Lucia Bosé) were teenage sweethearts. She left him to marry a richer and more influential industrialist Miguel (Otello Toso) but they’re now once more involved. Returning to Madrid from one of their trysts in the country, they run over a cyclist. They get out of the car to see whether he’s alive and find out he is. But instead of getting help they flee, worried that if others are involved, their affair will be uncovered and their social position ruined.
Back at work, Juan reads in the paper that the cyclist has died. He’s so distraught that he inadvertently fails a female student when she should have passed, a mistake witnessed by great numbers of people in class. What was previously selfishness now becomes murder. At a party, Rafa (Carlos Casaravilla) hints that he knows what’s happened and threatens blackmail. The rest of the film is a combination of tense Hitchcockian thriller, populated by characters suffering from Antonioni-esque ennui and framed in compositions very much influenced by the Italian modernist’s work, and peppered with sequences that owe a debt to Italian neo-realism, particularly in its Spanish variant such as in Surcos. Compare the sequence in Surcos (below) to the one that follows from Muerte de un ciclista.
The film is an indictment of the Franco regime. The culture depicted is one riddled with corruption. Juan’s brother-in-law is the reason he’s got his post at the University. And he could even be made Dean should he wish to on the basis of this connection. The brother-in-law is satirised giving one of those inflated, smug and florid speeches one so associates with the era. We see the mother who’s had everything in life categorised and measured and has problems understanding that which isn’t. She loves her son, but also understands he doesn’t share her values, not least her pride in having two sons fallen in the war. We see newsreels as of yore of Maria José, dressing up and looking glam, ostensibly to give money to the poor, whilst we know she let someone die because he was an inconvenience. We’re also shown those in power, like Juan at the university, so careless of those in his charge, he fails his student even without looking at what she’s done and potentially ruins her life. There’s a line spoken by Juan’s sister, at one of those boring cocktail parties that seem to make-up their life, where she jokes that the bracelet Maria José’s husband has given her comes at the cost of a thousand impoverished workers.
This viewing is the first one I’ve recognised the extent to which the Civil War permeates everything. It’s visible in the bombed out buildings by the tenement flats of the dead cyclist. It’s referred to in conversations with the mother. It’s what interrupted Juan’s love affair with Maria José and gave her the opportunity to marry a richer man. But more importantly, the trenches were Juan fought the war (on the Nationalist side), where he daydreamed of her, are visible from the very place he and Maria José let a poor cyclist die. The culture he fought for, the one his two brothers died to build, is the same one that allows him and his like to walk away from someone they’ve just run over with their car and let die.
It’s interesting that David Melville Wingrove, in an excellent piece for Senses of Cinema, assumes Juan fought for the Republicans, whilst I assume he fought for the Nationalists. I based the assumption on the his social class, his mother valuing the ‘glory’ of their name and revelling in a particular Nationalist discourse, his ‘fallen’ brothers, his position at the university, and the knowledge that such a representation of of an ex-Republican combatant would have been unlikely to be permitted representation. It’s worth saying that on his piece on the film in Antología crítica del cine Español, Casimiro Torreiro cites José María García Escudero, ex and future Director General of Spain’s Ministry of Film and Theatre, writing in the pages of Arriba, a Falangist paper, as naming Juan as ‘one of our ex-combattants (un ex-combatiente nuestro).’
Still, I don’t think the side Juan fought on, so important in the history of the Civil War and it’s aftermath, is ever explicitely stated.The fact that he fought in the trenches on the outskirts of Madrid means nothing as the gun could have been facing in either direction. Upon reflection, it might have been left deliberately open: and whatever side one assumes Juan fought in brings interesting, if different, dimensions to his character, and to the story. Seeing him as a Republican would explain his being the ‘black sheep’ of the family; his needing to rely on the patronage of his brother-in-law; his ennui and immobility during much of the film; and his being fired up by the protests. What’s really important in the film is Juan’s acknowledgment that the war is something that affected everybody, that ‘you can blame everything on it’ and the film’s use of it as a context in which Juan must live his existential crisis and begin to take responsibility for his actions.
If in Death of a Cyclist the rich are lazy, bored, corrupt and careless. they’re also made alluring: the men by loving and having a conscience, Maria José by looking so exquisitely beautiful. The poor are of course victims at the beginning and shown at the end to have the conscience and sense of responsibility the rich lack. The class that comes off worst here is the middle one, those with position, but who have to work for a living, like Rafa, the blackmailing art critic. What is it that the cinema of this period has against critics? They’re either bitchy (All About Eve) or murderous and perverse (Laura) and why is evil and deviant sexuality so often associated with modern art as here and in Phantom Lady?
Juan’s unjust and careless failing of Matilde (Bruna Corrà), the young student has resulted in the students protesting against the faculty (see below). This is shown to us through one of the many brilliant cuts in the film, where Rafa’s blackmail scheme has been foiled and in frustration he throws a bottle through the window of the restaurant where they’re all celebrating a wedding. Cut to a similar window being destroyed but this time at the faculty where Juan works as an assistant Professor of Analytic Geometry. The end of the threat of blackmail is thus inter-linked with the student protest. Certainly, Juan sees it as a way out of the ennui and hopelessness he’s been suffering from: ‘isn’t it wonderful?’ he says to Matilde of the protests against him, ‘This selflessness, this unity, this solidarity…your problem — my unfairness — has become their own…They’ve made me feel young and noble and selfless again’.
The student protest, pointedly designated an ‘insurrection,’ is a turning point in the film. From, this point onward, the tragic denouement is set. But let me linger for a moment on the significance of the film’s representation of this uprising. It was of course illegal. And the sight of the students against the army in front of an institutional building (see above) must have been an extraordinary sight in the totalitarian Spain of 1955. But the critique is built into the very fabric of the film. See for example, how Juan and Maria José’s secret meetings take place in either the circus or the Church, rendering with an equivalence clearly not noticeable to the censors of the time.
Above: We are shown Juan and Maria José (centre) discussing their murder at the circus (left) and with a mass at church in the background, right: both Circus and Church rendered as equivalent ritual distractions and ideal settings for discussions of crime and murder
Once Juan has his consciousness raised and found a purpose for living, the film returns to the noir structure it started with and denies the adulterous couple the happy ending that had in any case begun as an impossibility. The film returns us to the same setting, the place where Juan once fought for the repressive culture he now lives and in and where he dreamed of Maria José. As you can see below at the beginning (image on the left) Maria Jose is running towards Juan who is running after the cyclist. By the end (centre image), in the same setting, she is walking away from him. The distance between the couple is evident in both frames. By the image on the right however, in one of the many beautiful compositions that characterise this film, she’s descended from being the selfish and careless person who runs away from an accident to someone who actively plans to murder.
Rafa is the blackmailer. But as in so many noirs, Maria José is the femme fatale and the true villain of the story. She’s the one who’s driving when they run over the cyclist. The film often deploys unexpected cuts, through her, so as to show the lover when the husband is expected or vice-versa. She’s the one who married for money, avows her love to whichever man she’s with, and tries to hold on to her social position and worldly goods no matter the cost. If Juan changes from pointless ennui to self-liberation inspired by social protest, her trajectory is from that of careless selfishness to outright murder. It is interesting that we see her in newsreels collecting money for charity (see below left) but often, and throughout the film, pictured in, next to, or in font of a bed (see below right). In spite of the film’s left leanings it still hasn’t progressed to the point where it doesn’t blame the woman for everything.
As is shown in every frame visible in this post, the compositions are extraordinary. The other remarkable aspect of the film is the editing, constantly surprising and most effective. In the clip below, for example, note the associative cut, on smoke. Juan exhales the smoke in his bedroom, Maria José blows it away but then we notice that she is not with Juan but in her own bedroom at home, as she leans over, and we’re shown he husband entering the picture. It’s brilliant and one of many examples of unexpected and inventive cuts on action, on things, across people and spaces, even a liberal use of jump cuts.
The scene above deserves its own blog post. But I here simply want to show it to you as a way of bringing the discussion of framing, composition, and editing together in an extraordinary scene in which we are shown Rafa telling the husband of his suspicions. The flamenco blocks out the dialogue, the editing rhythmically raises tension. What is being said? How does it affect them? The camera goes from close-ups back to showing the guilty couple in a social setting, the tension builds through the increase in the close-ups, systematically, whilst occasionally returning them and us to the knowledge that their personal drama is being played out in public. It’s a great scene and characteristic of the cinematic brilliance evident throughout this great film.
The DVD is available on a great print through Criterion.