Death Of A Cyclist

*****

Reviewed by: Rebecca Naughten

Death Of A Cyclist
"Both a judgement on a country and the arrival of a new voice in Spanish cinema."

Upper-class former sweethearts Juan (Alberto Closas) and María José (a luminous Lucia Bosé) are having an affair. Driving back to Madrid after one of their liaisons, María José hits a cyclist and - despite Juan's protestation that the man is still alive - insists on driving on without fetching help in order to avoid a social scandal. The decision impacts on each in a different manner - while María José is concerned with keeping the social status her marriage affords her at all costs, the subsequent death of the cyclist awakens Juan's social and political conscience.

The winner of the FIPRESCI critics' prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1955, Death of a Cyclist was Juan Antonio Bardem's second solo directorial effort and focuses on a dangerous subject given the era in which he was working - an ethical choice. Bardem was preoccupied with the notion that Spanish cinema did not bear testimony to the times - he famously decried it as "politically ineffectual, socially false, intellectually poverty-stricken, aesthetically-void and industrially stunted" - and here uses the visual codes of both Hollywood melodrama and Italian neorealism in order to sidestep the censor and portray bourgeois bad conscience and the chasm between rich and poor in contemporaneous Spain.

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The film divides into two overlapping strands. The melodramatic romantic triangle between Juan, María José, and her husband Miguel (Otello Toso) - and the two men bear sufficient resemblance to each other that in one sequence Bardem and editor Margarita Ochoa are able to cross cut between Juan alone in his room and the couple at home, match-cutting the eyelines of the adulterers and blurring the identities of the men, to suggest that María José is thinking of Juan while interacting with her husband - takes on shades of noir when blackmail rears its head in the form of reptilian art critic Rafa (Carlos Casaravilla, in a performance that recalls Peter Lorre). The latter makes his definitive move during a high society party - the sound and spectacle of a flamenco performance obscures what is being said or threatened (neatly avoiding censorship), with Bardem further heightening the tension by fast cutting between a series of close-ups of the three sides of the triangle, each fearful of what might be revealed.

The other strand - the neorealist one - relates to the awakening of Juan's conscience, and entwines his moral dilemma with the political activities of the students at the university where he teaches geometry. Wanting to discover what the police know about the hit and run - and to know more about the dead man - Juan goes into the slums posing as a reporter and asks the cyclist's neighbour (Matilde Muñoz Sampedro - Bardem's own mother) about the man's widow. In contrast to the privileged close-ups and framed elegance of the high society sequences, Juan's incursion into the tenement slums resembles the work of Vittorio De Sica, creating a neorealist documentation of deprivation in which the depth of field and high angle shots cast Juan as simply one man among the masses. In parallel, when Juan treats student Matilde (Bruna Corrà) unfairly during an exam - he is distracted having just read the news of the cyclist's death - the student body will rise as one to defend her and demand his removal from the faculty (the student protest sequence did not wholly survive the censor). Their unity and show of solidarity moves Juan and gives him the final push towards making the right decision - sealing his fate.

María José will not be convinced of the need to confess - we have already seen her salve her conscience by making charitable donations - and the noirish tones of the melodrama again come to the fore as she steps fully into the role of femme fatale in order to protect her social standing. The bleakness of the ending, which finds the pair once more on the same country road, is in keeping with the times - not just in Spain - of no onscreen crime going unpunished, but it feels like both a judgement on a country and the arrival of a new voice in Spanish cinema.

Reviewed on: 14 Nov 2014
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Death Of A Cyclist packshot
A tale of guilt, infidelity, and blackmail unfolds after a cyclist is hit and killed by a couple driving back from an illicit rendezvous.

Festivals:

Leeds 2014

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