Produced by Manuel J. Goyanes; directed and written by Juan Antonio Bardem; cinematography by Alfredo Fraile; edited by Margarita Ochoa; production design by Enrique Alarcon; music by Isidro B. Maiztegui; starring Alberto Closas, Lucia Bosé, Otello Toso, Carlos Casaravilla, Bruna Corra, Julia Delgado Caro. DVD, B&W, 88 mins., 1955. A Criterion Collection release, distributed by Image Entertainment, www.Image-Entertainment.com.
Criterion’s release of Juan Antonio Bardem’s Death of a Cyclist continues the label’s ongoing, somewhat furtive project of reviving filmmakers as much as films. If Italian filmmakers, who profoundly affected Bardem and his generation, staked their claim at the most opportune historical moment, during Mussolini’s fall, Bardem’s fortunes in Francoist Spain couldn’t have been worse. By the early 1950s, Franco’s hegemony over the entirety of Spanish life was complete and brutally enforced; the nearly four-decade span of his dictatorship is only one measure of how sturdy and entrenched Franco’s brand of totalist fascism really was, and, even five years after his death, a visitor to Spain could easily detect the brooding aftereffects and aromas of a culture and society made resistant to any outside progressive ideas or forces. For a committed communist like Bardem, the regime and its hold on every cultural avenue provided both a useful object of resistance and an ongoing, debilitating headache.
In his succinct and pointed broadside, “Report on the Current State of Our Cinema,” delivered to a May 1955 congress on Spanish film convened at the University of Salamanca (and fully reprinted in Criterion’s accompanying booklet), Bardem reads the riot act, not to Franco (who had just tossed the filmmaker into prison for a brief stay before releasing him out to collect an International Critics Prize in Cannes for Death of a Cyclist), but to the Spanish film industry and establishment, including critics. Yet even in this context of a trenchant critique of the cultural and thematic backwardness of the nation’s cinema, Bardem notably had to accept a condition of Francoist censorship, only under slightly different terms: “We need the state not to view cinema as an enemy, not to restrict it or suffocate it. We need censorship to… explain clearly what’s forbidden and what isn’t.” Between the lines of such a statement is precisely the same contemporaneous paradox suffered by filmmakers under Stalinist dictatorships to Spain’s east, in which a state of repressive state censorship forced even the most oppositional film artist into a position of demanding not an end to the status quo but a clarity of the rules of the game. With such rules in place, Bardem could presumably engage in his own game of making a film as a political weapon—for that was his expressed, militant purpose—a game played by hiding that weapon under the cloak of metaphor, narrative forms and, in the case of Bardem, a kind of postneorealism dovetailed with melodrama.
The accidental killing of a bicycle rider that sets the film in motion
This role as the tip of the spear of the Spanish filmmaking left and his ambitions to combine Hollywood storytelling conventions with political critique, via postneorealism, were perhaps all too much to sustain. They are both nicely described and recalled by many of Bardem’s colleagues (including writer-director and frequent collaborator Luis Garcia Berlanga) and observers (such as incisive Spanish critic José Luis Castro) in the DVD’s accompanying documentary by Antonio Leal, Calle Bardem, made a year before the director’s death in 2002. As with most DVD extras, the Leal talking-heads film is best seen after watching the feature, since the discussion of Bardem is retrospective and accumulative of his entire career, and it tends to distort a proper viewing of Death of a Cyclist itself—acutely so in Bardem’s case.
There are valuable bits here, though, particularly Castro’s reminder that Spanish cinema before Bardem and Berlanga was more than just a wasteland of forgettable commercial product, and included works by Antonio Roman, Saenz de Heredia, Edgar Neville, and the films by the writer-director team of Miguel Mihura and Rafael Gil. (Castro forgets to mention the most remarkable pre-Bardem film of all, Lorenzo Llobet’s only feature, Vida en sombras .) Better to place Death of a Cyclist in its best context—at the moment of creation: while it clearly incorporates many aspects of Hollywood-influenced noir (particularly Ray and Tourneur) and was made at a production level higher that of most Spanish studio films of the period (Bardem was known to have the only Mitchell 35mm camera in the country), it was also made when Bardem was beginning to articulate a developed auteurist perspective, abandoning the early satirical comedies he had made with Berlanga (as writer, Welcome Mr. Marshall! (1953), as director, the semiautobiographical Comicos (1954), inspired by years growing up in a family of actors) and formulating a more complete cinematic vision that combined a complex mise-en-scène with a greater societal view. Along with his following film, Calle Mayor (1956), Bardem was never able again to match his work in Death of a Cyclist (Calle Bardem indirectly describes how far away he finally veered from it, including his attempt at realizing the personal dream of a big-budget studio production, not in Hollywood but in Bulgaria and under Soviet supervision in 1982, with the long-forgotten Die Mahnung); but at the time, it was the film of the moment, one that proposed an entirely new and different Spanish cinema than had dominated the landscape before.
With the economy of Tourneur and Walsh, Bardem immediately establishes in the opening frames of Death of a Cyclist not only the incident to which the title refers, but also, more crucially, that lovers Juan (Alberto Closas) and Maria José (Lucia Bosé) are doomed. Maria is behind the wheel of her car, colliding (unseen) into a man (also, tellingly, unseen) bicycling on a lonely stretch of country road. Their critical choice to not assist the injured man and leave the accident scene is literally the film’s driving force: The images of Maria José’s and Juan’s forward motion in the car away from the scene of their hit-and-run crime work counteractively on the viewer’s eye, so that the further they physically separate themselves from the scene itself, the closer the scene becomes and remains, dogging them the rest of the film. The set-up is pure film noir, nearly perfectly staged, cut, and acted, certainly the equal of anything in Out of the Past (1947) or They Drive by Night (1940), and for all of its filmmaking mastery, it also represents Bardem’s itch for a commercial hook. And once he’s set it, Bardem launches into the heart of his real mission here, which is to describe the rot at the core of Spanish ruling-class life.
Maria José is married to wealthy tycoon Miguel (Otello Toso, whose mustachioed resemblance to Closas is amusingly played up by Bardem), and it’s immediately obvious that this is a marriage more of convenience and glum cooperation than passion—a haute-bourgeois marriage, in other words. Juan, in a rather crude contrast, is the intellectual to Miguel’s man of money, but his position is compromised by the fact that he holds a university professorship largely due to the influence of wealthy powers-that-be at the university, starting with the dean. Complicating the picture are the characters’ backgrounds, which Bardem uses as the basis for his climactic set-piece: The current lovers were once engaged, but separated by the forces of the Spanish Civil War (with Juan notably fighting for the fascists). Miguel is Maria José’s ticket to the good life, but, like any regal atmosphere, it includes a kind of court jester in the form of art critic and snarky hanger-on Rafael “Rafa” Sandoval (Carlos Casaravilla). Like a cynic who might have drifted in from a Billy Wilder movie, Rafa sees himself as no different from Maria José—an outsider who has managed to crash the party—but who views himself as outside enough to be able to tally up her inner circle’s quotidian corruption and crimes like a dark-eyed accountant with a permanent smile forming at the end of his lips, waiting for his day to exact blackmail. With his apparent sighting of Maria José and Juan in a car together, he’s prepared to cash in his chips.
The Rafa-Maria José-Miguel interplay is sprinkled with irony, sarcasm, and suggestion, and comes to a boil with the help of social satire, revenge, paranoia, and suspicion. It’s quite a soup, and Bardem has fun dipping into it. Contrary to the film’s reputation as a stark rebuke of Franco-era hypocrisy and corruption, Death of a Cyclist is perhaps most surprising and memorable for this half-terrifying, half-comical roundelay of three people caught in a web of misunderstanding (Maria José mistakenly convinced that Rafa witnessed something of the bicycle accident) and distrust (each of them for the other). The surest sign of Bardem’s pleasure is how these sequences stir his most imaginative filmmaking. Consider a scene that’s about as removed from neorealism as Michael Curtiz or Sergei Eisenstein: It’s those two who come to mind during a brilliant nightclub tête-à-tête involving Maria José, Rafa, and Miguel, whose dialog is drowned out on the soundtrack by a flamenco group performing in a small club. Suspicions have come to a head; Rafa appears ready to reveal all to Miguel; Maria José tries to read Rafa’s lips as he inches close to Miguel’s ear. Bardem shoots and (with his clearly clever editor Margarita Ochoa) cuts from face to face, closer and closer, with the maniacal energy of a Sam Fuller (or, indeed, Eisenstein), the flamenco as an itchy counterpoint, denying us any real insight except that of a cockeyed chamber world fueled by fear and myopia.
Maria José (Lucia Bosé) a woman involved in an illicit affair with Juan (Alberto Closas)
Perhaps the problem with making weapons is that you eventually have to use them, and Bardem’s self-perceived function as an anti-Francoist warrior forging his film in the hot metal of anger at a tyrant and his culture of hypocritical creeps finally doesn’t serve the film as well as it might under other circumstances. But these were the circumstances Bardem found himself in during the midst of the Franco dark age, certain in his accumulating filmmaking powers and his belief in a democratic communist future. The cause had to be won, lessons had to be taught in transforming people from political and moral backwardness to a progressive future, and the tool for such transformation is Juan, cast in the proscribed role of the story’s moral force. Disturbed by the sight of a newspaper story reporting on the (unsolved) hit-and-run, Juan allows himself to unfairly fail a female student in his class, a seemingly innocuous event that takes on increasing importance. In effect, it’s Juan’s second crime during the course of the film, but one that he alone is responsible for.
Enter the most insistent and literal-minded theme in Death of a Cyclist, and the theme that surely was the mainspring for the project: the poisonous effect of egoism and the cult of the self, which Bardem demonstrates had infected Spain like a cancer. In some ways, the film is a precise counter to the literature of Ayn Rand, whose “Objectivist” and hyperlibertarian politics was grounded in absolute self-orientation and was becoming all the rage in some circles in the Western world in the late Forties and into the Fifties, and whose strongly anticommunist ideology—despite Rand’s outspoken opposition to any brand of totalitarian control—was surely receiving receptive readers in Franco’s Spain. (Although—and this is a critical factor in assessing outside influences on Bardem and his Spanish contemporaries—Bardem’s access to foreign-language cinema was limited by Spanish cultural forces, it’s almost certain that he would have been able to see King Vidor’s widely dispersed 1949 film version of Rand’s The Fountainheadstarring Gary Cooper.) The negative associations with the terms “self” and “ego” appear in Bardem’s dialog several dozen times during the course of Death of a Cyclist (“You’re a bunch of selfish pigs!,” Rafa yells to Maria José’s face during one tense exchange) and, unlike many an American film noir that dramatizes the actions of characters spurred purely by self-interest at the expense of anyone else without articulating the causes of those actions, Bardem’s own noir makes no bones about it, exactly affixing Maria José’s and Juan’s accident/murder as an act of pure, driven selfishness.
To put a punctuation mark on it, the film’s title in its Italian release was The Egoists—which may have easily served as alternate title worldwide. There’s an irony in all of this, however: Juan becomes a vehicle for the virtues of the creator’s politics, exactly like one of Rand’s wooden, ideologically-driven characters. Juan eventually cleanses himself of his filthy deeds, through a course of steps that combine aspects of the confessional and absolution. (In this way, Death of a Cyclist is a definitively Catholic Communist film.) He attempts some form of contact with the dead cyclist’s family, living in one of Madrid’s worst slums (in the sequence most directly associated with a kind of De Sica neorealism), though even here, it’s shaded by the fact that he lies about how he’s a reporter covering the crime rather than one of the responsible parties. From at first ignoring his poorly treated student, he then listens to her—in the film’s most important ideological scene—with the furious student protests against him on view outside the window of the university office where he meets with her. Bardem films the protests nearly as documentary, and they exist not to strike fear into the heart of Juan, but as inspiration. Rather than a mob, he looks out the window (just broken by a tossed object) and sees “selfless solidarity,” and then goes further, seeing his own past self in the students, and realizing that he’s been cut off from “anything real.” From this moment on, Juan turns a corner in his life, abandoning his old ways, the university, Maria José, and everything associated with her. So, too, Bardem bluntly declares, must Spain.
Bardem lacked the freedom of, say, a Stanley Kramer to stamp messages on characters’ foreheads, which in a certain ironic way is a good thing. More crucially, though, he lacked the freedom to do what he dearly wanted to do, which was to extend the postneorealist project from Italy to Spain. In her essay accompanying the disc, and excerpted from her book, Blood Cinema: The Reconstruction of National Identity in Spain, Marsha Kinder stresses the impact on Bardem and his circle of a series of Italian neorealist and postneorealist films screened in Madrid in 1951. Kinder makes the common mistake of conflating the neorealist work of Rossellini and De Sica (to name two) with the new postneorealism created by Michelangelo Antonioni with his first feature, Cronica di un amore (1950). Cronica is a stark break with a movement that had already begun to burn out, proposing entirely new formal concepts of how to tell a story cinematically (in that way, Cronica is a stark break with everything before it, never mind the neorealists) and indicating that the most powerful, yet subtle, social critique is not melodrama pitying the poor but examining the ways of the rich.
Kinder, however, while giving due credit to Hitchcock’s and Hollywood’s melodrama influences, incisively and correctly identifies the Antonioni as the key film influencing the form, shape, and substance of Death of a Cyclist and the cinema Bardem intended to make after his Berlanga collaborations. Bardem’s film is quite possibly most important not as a harbinger of future Spanish cinema—which, as things transpired, it actually wasn’t, since Spanish cinema rather quickly hit a new dead end—but as the first film to show the growing influence of Antonioni outside Italy. Cronica virtually flows into Death of a Cyclist: lovers haunted by murder are brought together and then gradually torn apart out of crisis; their fears and suspicions are placed in a context of considerable privilege, with the man from a lower class entering the woman’s world of wealth and leisure, with the lovers somehow of but not at the central circle of power and privilege; cities are hornets’ nests of rumor, gossip, and innuendo, while the barren countryside is a landscape compelling reflection, retrospect, and self-examination; plot points are positioned through montage, with precisely laid cuts that link scenes (far more subtly in Antonioni than in Bardem, who tends to lay on this particular technique a wee thick); and, most expressly of all, Lucia Bosé is cast in both films as the wealthy lover drawn to the comforts of wealth but wrenched by her hand in inadvertent murder.
Miguel (Otello Toso) and Maria confront Rafa (Carlos Casaravilla), whom they believe winessed the accident
Each contains an investigation of misdeeds that happens to be less consequential than the misdeed the investigators are ignoring—the difference being that in Antonioni, a continually frustrated private eye tracking Bosé is stymied in his attempts to prove that she’s cheating on her husband, while in Bardem, Rafa is poking around immediately adjacent to Bosé, insinuating, needling, suggesting that he knows more than he actually does. To a certain extent, although not to the radical degree of Antonioni’s mise-en-scène, Bardem displays the same interest and confidence in plan-sequence staging, withholding edits for maximum impact. Like Antonioni, Bardem steers away from the most obviously neorealist tropes (an extended long shot of Juan walking down a real city street while being passed by a series of real but symbolically meaningful bicyclists is a resonant exception) for a more modernist atmosphere (interior designs are unexpectedly au courant).
And central to the cinema that Antonioni was creating both in response to what he deemed the cruder and least successful aspects of neorealism and to a moribund Hollywood film grammar, Bardem shares with the Italian an intention to filmically dramatize through ellipsis. The fascinating tension in Bardem’s cinema, encapsulated in Death of a Cyclist, is between the Marxist warrior intent on staging a furtive revolution by, in the words of his Salamanca statement, “bearing testimony to our time”; the filmmaker-entertainer desiring to make a technically world-class film that can stand toe-to-toe with Hollywood; and the artist determined to sign his work, acutely sensitive to refining film language and form and resolutely aware of the power of suggestion, and pushing Spanish cinema to the forefront of the most vital cinemas on the other side of Pyrenees. The tension remains unresolved, and it’s perhaps best represented in how Bardem orchestrates his opening and closing scenes. Ellipsis guides the first, from the opening shot of the bicyclist riding out of view, and the fatal crash occurring offscreen, to Bardem’s deliberate deletion of the standard shot of the dying/dead bicyclist sprawled on the ground. (The only indication of possible death is a framing of figure and ground with a partial view of a twisted bicycle frame and spinning wheels.) Deletion equals disconnection, the dissolution of human victim into object.
For his ending, Bardem was forced into a compromise, one that unfortunately also fed a certain obvious romance of the working class as moral compass. Spanish censors compelled him to ensure that Bosé’s character, who appears like she may be getting away with the perfect crime of murder twice, dies at the end—exactly the sort of easy dramatic justice imposed by Hollywood self-censoring and (at that time) the culture of the Hays Code. Just as crudely, Bardem also inserts the actions of a bicyclist who witnesses her death, and—as a good member of the working class, and unlike the amoral rich folks who play hit-and-run—does the right thing, and pedals off to report the incident. Here, Bardem is the political player, both functionally and ideologically: To survive, play along with authorities, but also use the imposed scene as a Trojan Horse for a message about worker morality. The compromise and counterstrategy are both too demonstrably clear to hold up well as art, and they cancel the Antonionian principle of ellipsis, from which Bardem drew great sustenance.
A beginning that points to a future cinema just out of Bardem’s reach, an ending that serves as an anatomy of all that plagued Bardem as a cultural prisoner in Spain circa 1955 and as an eager lieutenant in a Marxist battle against fascism. Taken together, the poles that describe a film that nearly achieved all that it wanted, and a filmmaker, like his characters, torn by conflicting impulses and realities.
Robert Koehler also writes film criticism for Variety and Cinemascope