Tag Archives: Surcos

Muerte de un ciclista/ Death of a Cyclist (Juan Antonio Bardem, Spain, 1955)

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 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.

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Stiking compositions: Maria José hanging from her car, occupying half the frame, whilst a cyclist looks down from the top right hand corner

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.

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Juan reads the paper whilst his student does her exam

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?

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Villainy and modern art: the film makes sure we see a close-up of the painting (which looks like a Miró) before adjusting so that Rafa can enter the frame.

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’.


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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.


José Arroyo

Surcos/ Furrows (J.A. Nieves Conde, Spain, 1951)


A landmark film in the history of Spanish cinema, Surcos vividly evokes a way of life and structures of feeling of Francoist Spain and is the best snapshot of that moment in history  I can think of. The Perez family migrates from their village to Madrid in the hopes of a better life. The film begins with their arrival at the old Estación del Norte, with their chickens in their hand-baskets. They already have a son there, Pepe (Francisco Arenzana) who knows the city a bit due to having done his military service there. He find them rooms with a relative in Lavapies whose  daughter Pili (Maria Asquerino),has already been corrupted by the city. Pili’s street-smart, cynical, makes a living off the black market (estraperlo) that was such a feature of life in those days, and is involved with a small time hood, a typical Madrid chulo called El Mellao (Luis Peña) who lives off her and occasionally beats her.

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The court-yard of old working-class flats

The Perez family arrive with just about enough money to pay their rent so their first objective is to get a job. They register with the unemployment agency but there’s a huge queue for work and in the meantime the family’s got to live. The father starts selling contraband cigarettes and candy along the Avenida del Prado but he’s too imbued with rural values — love of children, honesty — and ends up giving the candy away and getting arrested and fined by the police for illegal activity. The youngest son, Manolo (Ricardo Lucía), gets a job as a delivery boy at a grocery store but he’s so decent and naive he’s quickly robbed and the family is now in hock for all the father and the youngest son have lost. The father is so emasculated by the city, failing as both a vendor and a factory worker, that he ends up clearing the table and washing the dishes at home. The youngest son is kicked out of the house by the mother- who’s here depicted as one of those monster mamas so typical of Francoist cinema –for losing his job and landing the family in hock to his employers for the goods he’s been robbed  and he ends up on the street, drying his one shirt amidst bombed out buildings, and fainting from hunger.

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Manolo, hungry and homeless in front of a poster for ‘Father of the Bride; and below, yearned-for goods, on display but out of reach

The only Perez child who gets and keeps a job is Pepe who Pili hooks up with Don Roque, ‘El Chamberain’ (Félix Defauce), a local gangster. Pepe begins as a driver. He moves up to armed robbery and makes enough money to replace ‘El Mellao’ in Pili’s affections. The daughter Toña (Marisa de Leza) dreams of being a singer but like so many young girls of that generation ends up in service as a maid, in her case to Don Roque’s mistress.  When they leave the house to go to the pictures — one of the neo-realist films so in vogue, the film tells us — Toña tries on her employer’s clothes but in doing so rips a stocking. In this film a pair of silk stockings is an unaffordable dream to a poor family and spells ruin for Toña. This is a film with a palpable yearning for things that to us are basic but to these people in this time is completely out of reach. Toña caresses her mistress’s silk stockings like they’re the most precious of jewels, Pili yearns for years for a winter coat she never gets, Manolo is pictured outside shops stacked with food he can’t have.

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The evidence of the still recent Civil War everywhere evident

As the film progresses, the father sees the deterioration of his family. The eldest son is the only one bringing in money  and he thinks that makes him head of the family and gives him the right to bring his girlfriend home to have sex with, such an outrage that the father beats him for it. The daughter Toña gets conned by Don Roque into sleeping with him to comfort her for her failed debut as a singer — a failure Don Roque engineered for precisely that purpose. When the father goes in search for her and finds her ensconced as Don Roque’s new mistress, he beats her too. When he gets home, he hits the mother as well, blaming her for, well, everything.

Above, father beats son, wife and daughter, at different times, for crossing the ever-so-rigid lines of a particular and precisely delineated ways of being

At the end of the film, the family is at the cemetery, burying their eldest and headed back home to their village, accepting the shame their failure will bring on them, but glad of their straight and narrow furrow where things are the way they should be, a typical colloquial phrase from a culture that held those things to be certain; and away from the corruptions of  the city, where they’re not.

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The eldest son being buried; the city blamed for the death in the background

The film is a landmark film in the history of Spanish cinema for many reasons: its on-location shooting and its attempt at a neo-realist style; its depiction of prostitution and other ‘immoralities’ then forbidden; its implied critique of the society its depicting, then remarkable because forbidden. It’s intelligent and well-made. But it’s too manichean to be great. It’s view of rural poverty as enobling is in itself a Francoist ideal. Its dichotomous juxtaposition of the rural and the urban, facile.

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A dream of a more glamorous life.

Though it might not be great, Surcos is nevertheless a film I love. The story of internal migration in the film has parallels with  external migration now. Hicks from villages in 1950s Madrid were treated just as contemptuously as Latin American immigrants are now. The jobs, the way of getting them, the patriarchal family structures of the day, the strict gender roles are recognisable to me and lasted way past the period in which the film is set. I think many Spanish people would recognise aspects of their own family history or of people they know in this film. Plus, because it was shot on location, the film also acts as a kind of document of how Madrid used to be and I find myself pulled into a haze fo feeling — part nostalgia, part sadness, a kind of mosaic of the many phases of Madrid’s development that I’ve witnessed compared to those I haven’t, such as here, that I find fascinating and satisfying.

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The homeless and the hungry

It’s a film those who continue to feel nostalgia for Franco’s Spain should see. Here is a Madrid as poor as some rural villages are now. Compare it to Almodóvar’s Madrid. The places in Surcos are identifiable; the attitudes, ways of life, levels of poverty and hunger are not. In Surcos the characters are constantly placed next to things they can’t have; the riches evident in American films like Father of the Bride, the show-business glamour of the singers and dancers of the Madrid of the era but also food, stockings, bras, new coats. What the film shows as impossible glitz are people’s everyday lives in Almodóvar’s Madrid. The change is not only physical and material but also evident in more expansive, generous and open ways of living, being and thinking.

José Arroyo


Below I’ve enclosed image-capture from the film that those who know Madrid might recognise and get a special kick from seeing:

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The family arrives at the old Estación del Norte, which shut down in 1990. The Royal Palace is visible in the background.

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They come out of the Metro in Lavapies
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This is Plaza Legazpi; the smoke tower still exists today and is part of the Matadero complex
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One of the lower Banco de España
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One of the entrances to the Plaza Mayor
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La Latina, still operating
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Selling contraband in Paseo del Prado