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Juan Antonio Bardem
Death of a Cyclist Muerte de un Ciclista


Death of a Cyclist (Muerte de un Ciclista) 1955 (a.k.a The Age of Infidelity) | dir Juan Antonio Bardem | writ J.A. Bardem (story by L.F. De Ioga) | cine Alfredo Fraile | music Isidro B. Maiztequi | sets Enrique Alarcon | prod Manuel J. Goyomes

Cast: Lucia Bose (Maria Jose Castro) Alberto Closas (Juan Fernandez Soler) Otello Tosso (Miguel Castro) Carlos Casaravilla (Rafa) Bruna Corra (Matilde) Julia Delgado Caro (Dona Maria) Elsa Fabregas (Maria Jose's voice dub) et. al.

§ It's an accident, although you don't really see it... conclusively. A cyclist passes, going up hill, and when he disappears over the crest, you hear a car swerve, and the clatter of the bicycle as it hits the pavement. Moments later a woman appears on the crest, bends down. The victim remains an off-stage action, even when the camera cuts to the scene. You see the woman -- a beautiful woman in a fur coat -- staring down at the victim, and the mangled frame of his bicycle. Her car -- a black Fiat saloon -- is parked further along the road, which extends into the desolate landscape as a long straight section. She is joined by a man wearing a trenchcoat, who crouches down and stares in shock as if contemplating the future rather than the unseen, anonymous victim.

A common technique of the film thriller, the "withholding of information" might seem to be a cheap trick for those who believe in "strict point-of-view", although here it might be for reasons of symbolic possibility rather than easy suspense. Film directors have never paid much attention to the literary notion of strict POV anyway, preferring the visual appeal of unlikely and even impossible angles. So you have an accident you didn't see which becomes a crime because the woman and the man drive away from the scene without reporting the incident. Why would they do this? Because the woman was behind the wheel, and because their clandestine love affair would be exposed.

Death of a Cyclist

Juan Antonio Bardem's Death of a Cyclist (Muerte de un Ciclista) (1955) is a tabloid drama of deep political intent. While the story and production approach owe an almost unforgivable amount to Antonioni's Story of a Love Affair (1950), the action is a political parable, and as such, an indictment of the Franco government of the day. The two principals, Maria Jose (Lucia Bose) and Juan (Alberto Closas), are two lovers whose affair reveals the decadence of the Spanish ruling elite and draws into focus the moral failing of its nepotistic method. Juan, the self-confessed black sheep of his family, is an assistant prof of analytical geometry at a local university in Madrid, a position he owes to the patronage of his blowhard brother-in-law (a high-ranking capo in the ruling party), and is full of self-loathing because of this situation. His affair with Maria Jose, the wife of a rich Madrid businessman, is a resumption of one that they had prior to her marriage (just as in Antonioni's Story of a Love Affair).

Initially, they think they can get away with the death of the cyclist... yet almost immediately guilt and paranoia erode their confidence. Maria Jose has party where a local art critic and social parasite called Rafael ("Rafa") claims to have seen her driving on the Madrid-France highway. His method is innuendo, like an Iago of the mind, and while he's as real as any other character in the film, his function is psychological. His face has the exaggerated features of a spirit mask, the sort of ugliness that is excited by beauty -- in this case, Maria Jose.

He's at the piano, entertaining the guests, when Maria asks him what he's playing. "Blackmail," says Rafa. "It just came to me... 5.30 pm on the highway to France, in a Fiat, going 60 mph." Maria, trance-like, says, "Destination?" Rafa says, "Unknown." Did he in fact spot Maria Jose with her lover? Or is he merely playing head-games with a beautiful woman. What does he know? The inner voice of doubt, guilt, and fear is already working on Maria's confidence. It's a theatre style, melodrama, poetic and elliptical like Lorca or Strindberg.

It's the same for her lover Juan. He's in a darkened movie house watching a newsreel of his fat-cheeked brother-in-law speaking at a party fund-raiser, his speech laced with bombast and nationalist cliches. To be in the pocket of this creature only exacerbates Juan's feeling of futility, of his sense of entrapment by the fascist system and his affair with Maria, now poisoned by the death of the cyclist.

The paranoia of the lovers deepens in a scene at the racetrack, where Rafa reads out the details of the dead cyclist from a newspaper report; again, the not-so-veiled innuendo, as if he knows their secret. Maria and Juan confer, believe Rafa knows nothing, or at best, he saw Maria out driving alone. Who could've seen anything? The only witness is Juan, and he's an accessory. So the moral crime of their illicit affair is transfixed by the death of the unknown cyclist, an event that is pure symbolism.

parable of the toroid

Perhaps the best scene in the film is the geometry exam, where the students are gathered in a large lecture hall watching as one of them -- a female student called Matilde -- demonstrates some algebraic logic concerning a toroid. Symbolism? Perhaps. As a toroid's annular shape is generated by revolving a circle around an axis external to the circle, then this imagery can be viewed as a subtle analogue to Juan's personal situation.

The senior professor excuses himself, exits the lecture hall, while Juan ignores the student, mesmerized by a newspaper update about the cyclist, now identified. Matilde's exposition becomes an aggravating psycho-babble in Juan's ears, and he angrily dismisses her. The other students take note of this irrational outburst as the humiliated Matilde resumes her seat in the theatre.

Things come to a head when Juan attacks Rafa at a flamenco party, which is a nice piece of drama. While the Franco government ignored the arts, it supported the lottery, bullfighting and flamenco as the true expressions of Spanish culture. Rafa is in the washroom, washing the smoke & sweat from his face. Juan enters; immediately an ugly exchange occurs. "What are you looking at?" snarls Rafa. "Did Maria Jose send you?" "Are you sick?" says Juan. He offers to take Rafa home but Rafa pushes past him, sneers, "The good Samaritan! Know what? You're afraid of me... I know things about you... despicable things... you'll have to pay me to keep me quiet." Juan strikes Rafa on the face, draws blood. Rafa cowers, then asserts himself. "Bad move," he says, ducks back into the club.

Everything Rafa says is circumspect, elliptical, could apply to anything. In fact, all of this could be a big misunderstanding. He's no idealist, merely a lapdog poisoned by gossip, a court jester longing for nobility... a clever man twisted by desire & contempt. Has he spoken to Miguel? Passed along his suspicions? Maria Jose believes so.

Death of a Cyclist

Matide: Death of a Cyclist

Juan confronts Rafa

Meanwhile Juan slowly disintegrates. He seeks out the wife of the cyclist who lives in a shanty apartment in a poor neighborhood, offers her money as a concerned citizen. Then he is visited by Matilde, who says she failed her exam, and while the students are protesting this injustice, she knows Prof Juan will escape because he is under the protection of his brother-in-law. Again, the emotions of two separate concerns overlap, embrace -- just like a toroid figure. Juan more or less confesses to her -- only the essential details are omitted. Indeed, Juan's torment leads him to eventually write a letter admitting his guilt which he gives to her at the sports stadium, saying she should take it to the Dean.

The staging of this sequence is very good when you consider the chain link fence that separates the characters; the fence dramatizes their respective isolation. In many ways Juan has the character of a priest, an institutional figure who has failed the have-nots in Spanish society by becoming a puppet of the authoritarian regime. His crime is a professional failure, with a certain spiritual configuration.

As for Maria Jose, she has agreed to go away with her husband on an extended holiday, a chance to rejuvenate their marriage. His attitude is ambiguous, as if he knows something, either from Rafa or by intuition. She meets Juan one last time, and he gets her to drive him to the scene of the crime. He now sounds like a man committed to suicide, a man who needs atonement. He stands on the road where the cyclist died, talks crazy talk, and for Maria Jose her lover has become a problem. Juan is, in fact, the only witness... and without a witness, surely she will be free.

You could ask, is this a death foreseen? Again there is a live theatre feel about the direction, the familiar monologue of the condemned before sentencing.

The ending of this film is ideologically correct, although some might question the aesthetic paradigm with its easy circularity. However, just remember the parable of the toroid. Maria Jose is an unscrupulous bitch, no question, and even without her passive political pedigree she would have to atone somehow. Yet her character is left somewhat hollow, supported by fur coats and fantasy. In the end you wonder if the price she pays is a bit much for an unfortunate hit-and-run... especially now, removed from the context of Spain, 1955.

Death of a Cyclist has the European neo-realist economy-of-scale, that is, the action is described by a single camera in deep-focus (full landscape depth-of-field) which allows live theatre staging.

Death of a Cyclist

§ The Criterion DVD includes a booklet with an essay by Marsha Kinder and a polemic delivered by the director Juan Antonio Bardem at the Salamanca Congress in May 1955. Here Bardem rails against Raza, Franco's autobiographical film (yes, Franco actually wrote a film script) as being false politically... and condemns the rest of Spanish cinema to date as being mere "escapism".

Marsha Kinder's essay is an extract from her book on Spanish cinema, and is useful to students for its historical perspective and the exposition of certain cultural nuances.

the influence of Antonioni

The influence of Antonioni's first feature Story of a Love Affair (Cronaca di un Amore) 1950 is pervasive, and this isn't just because Bardem used the same leading lady, the Italian star Lucia Bose. The winter landscape, the sex triangle plot, the ambiguous crime, the leading characters, the style and execution of many scenes, the tilt towards film noir... all of this makes Death of a Cyclist worthy of the typical Hollywood reverse-engineering hijack that so characterizes the American film industry. Harsh? Death of a Cyclist is a good film with an integrity of its own, has several outstanding scenes, although some are reinventions of Antonioni settings.

When Maria Jose & Juan meet to discuss their situation at the circus -- compare this to the lovers in the planetarium scene in Story of a Love Affair. When Maria Jose talks with her husband Miguel Castro about leaving town -- compare this to Paola & Enrico Fontana in their bedroom in Story of a Love Affair. When Prof Juan encounters Matilde at the sports stadium -- compare the visual perspective with that in Story of a Love Affair when Paola & Guido meet at the lake. Etcetera. Fast cars become fast horses, jazz becomes flamenco. However -- unlike Antonioni -- there is nothing ambiguous about Bardem's ending. It has a film noir finality, just like Barbara Stanwyck in The File On Thelma Jordan accelerating towards oblivion and justice.

© Lawrence Russell / Dec 08

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