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DVD SAVANT

Death of a Cyclist
Muerte de un ciclista


Death of a Cyclist
Criterion
1955 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 87 min. / Muerte de un ciclista / Street Date April 22, 2008 / 29.95
Starring Lucia Bosé, Alberto Closas, Otello Toso, Carlos Casaravilla, Bruna Corr&eacutè, Julia Delgado Caro
Cinematography Alfredo Fraile
Film Editor Margarita de Ochoa
Original Music Isidro B. Maiztegui
Written by Juan Antonio Bardem from a story by Luis Fernando de Igoa
Produced by Georges de Beauregard, Manuel J. Goyanes
Directed by Juan Antonio Bardem

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Criterion can be indispensable at times, presenting not just the better-known classics but an entire range of great and often unjustly obscure pictures. If one takes what's been released on Region 1 DVD, our knowledge of Spanish cinema before Pedro Almodóvar doesn't extend much beyond Carlos Saura (Cría Cuervos and The Flamenco Trilogy). In 1955 the Franco regime had the Spanish film industry in such a slump that its directors convened at Salamanca to proclaim that there really wasn't a Spanish film industry any more. Censorship and government controls made it nearly impossible for any kind of personal film to be made. Director Juan Antonio Bardem issued a paper stating that, "After sixty years of filmmaking, Spanish cinema is:

Politically ineffective
Socially false
Intellectually worthless
Aesthetically nonexistent
Industrially crippled.
"

Bardem made his masterpiece Death of a Cyclist the very same year. It resembles an American film noir, but that addresses definite Iberian issues. Class-consciousness figures heavily in its depiction of the working poor and the moneyed elites. Despite the fact that Franco's censors abhorred political themes, it has a lot to say about the state of the country less than fifteen years after the Guerra Civil.

Synopsis:

Adulterous lovers María José de Castro and Juan Fernandez Soler (Lucia Bosé & Alberto Closas) are returning from a romantic getaway when their car accidentally strikes a man on a bicycle. It's a lonely stretch of highway and there are no witnesses, so María makes Juan leave the victim unconscious in the road: reporting the accident would expose their secret. At first María's husband Miguel Castro (Otello Toso) suspects nothing, but unpleasant art critic and family friend Rafa Sandoval (Carlos Casaravilla) implies that he's aware of María's complicity and hints that he wants blackmail money. Juan is a bored, underachieving college professor who owes his job to Miguel; he's so rattled by a newspaper report of the accident victim's death that he wrongly dismisses student Matilde Luque (Bruna Corr&eacutè) in the middle of a geometry exam, ruining her academic standing. Humiliated, Matilde confronts Juan and is shocked when he admits he was wrong, but under the University rules can no longer do anything about her problem. As Rafa puts pressure on the Castros, Juan's school erupts in protest. Juan's masochistic reaction is to remain passive. He seems to relish the idea of atonement, not only for the accident but also for his entire life as a self-judged failure.

Death of a Cyclist has Italian actors, a French producer and a Hollywood style, but it's distinctly Spanish in theme and characters. Producer Georges de Beauregard later financed a big chunk of the French New Wave. Here he bankrolls the talented Bardem on a movie that at first would appear to be an attempt to repeat the success of Michelangelo Antonioni's Story of a Love Affair (Cronaca di un amore). That film starred the attractive Lucia Bosé and also dealt with infidelity; Bardem complicates the proceedings with the guilty fallout of a selfish crime.

Bardem's sophisticated direction expresses the inequities of Spanish life. Like the sideways hints of the corrupt art critic, the script insinuates that the Fascist state is a rotten system by making its hero an academic who considers himself a loser. Juan holds his job because of his connection with the rich Miguel Castro, the man he is cuckolding. Juan's brothers and father died fighting for Franco, and his own sister considers him a loser because he won't do what everyone else is doing, chasing the lucrative business contracts offered by Americans. The guilty Juan visits a tenement where the accident victim lived and sees that the man was just one of thousands of workers trying to feed his family in a bad environment. Meanwhile, María weighs her choices. Exposure of her infidelity means losing her rich husband and her status as a leading socialite. Since most of her friends are also there because of her husband's influence, María's prospects are dim.

Despite its Italian stars and social criticism, the movie is not a Spanish imitation of Italian neo-realism. Bardem directs his scenes with a precision that reminds us of Alfred Hitchcock. He never shows the bicyclist, keeping our identification and sympathy focused on the hit-and-run lovers. Scene transitions have associative rhymes, as when the angry Rafa throws something, and Bardem cuts to a window broken by the demonstrating students.

The most daring and successful scene inter-cuts María and her husband smoking and kissing, with Juan sitting alone in his apartment, just staring at the wall. The view pops back and forth until we're convinced that Juan is thinking about what his lover is doing, or perhaps imagining it. Puffs of cigarette smoke match across cuts, and when María leans in to kiss Miguel, we cut to a similar push-in on the irritated Juan, imagining or intuiting the other scene. Death of a Cyclist plays out in a natural way, yet every camera angle expresses something important about the characters and their place in society.  1

Juan finds his moral bearings through the attentions of the co-ed whose career he damaged, Matilde Luque. When the students are protesting outside, Matilde comes to apologize, even though Juan's connections insure that the University President will not dismiss him. Juan finds inspiration in the motivated, morally uncompromised Matilde; she interprets his interest as personal and forms a crush on him. Matilde's example gives Juan the courage to walk away from his secure life and take responsibility for his actions. Juan is counting on María's cooperation. Miguel has given María a tough decision to make, and we don't know which man she'll choose.  2


Criterion's disc of Death of a Cyclist is a beautiful transfer of a handsomely filmed B&W show that makes good use of rainy weather on Spanish locations. It's the cinematic equal of film work being done anywhere in the world in 1955. The menus contain a lengthy, well-edited set of interviews with Juan Antonio Bardem's collaborators and contemporaries, who stress his background as a communist, working in Franco's harsh Fascist society. An insert booklet contains a lengthy and well-written essay by USC professor Marsha Kinder and the full text of Bardem's address to the May 1955 Salamanca Congress, the meeting that changed the direction of Spanish moviemaking. Of course, in just a few years Spain's fledgling film industry would be overrun by foreign producers bartering special deals with Franco's government ... as discussed in Savant's reviews of El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Death of a Cyclist rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Insert essay, 2007 Interview docu
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 26, 2008

Footnotes:

1. The credited assistant director of Death of a Cyclist is none other than Euro-horror, horror-porn and just plain porn director Jesus Franco. We sincerely hope that Francophile critics don't choose to draw career parallels between the two filmmakers, or suggest that they have artistic principles in common.
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2. The film contains a strange mistake, or at least I assume it's a mistake. As María is waiting in the car at the end, while Juan talks about the Civil War battle fought in the fields, she's supposed to be alone. But an over-the-shoulder shot from behind her in the car clearly shows a gloved hand passing through the frame.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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