DEATH OF A CYCLIST (MUERTE DE UN CICLISTA) 4 stars Cast: Alberto Closas, Lucia Bose, Otello Toso, Carlos Casaravilla, Bruna Corra and Jula Delgado Caro Writer-Director: Juan Antonio Bardem Distributor: Criterion Collection Not rated
Pablo Picasso, Luis Bunuel and Pablo Casals - giants of Spanish culture during the 20th century - went into exile during the reign of Spain’s fascist dictator, Francisco Franco. But film director Juan Antonio Bardem, who was 17 when the bloody Spanish Civil War ended in 1939 with a Nationalist victory, stayed in his homeland, making movies while undergoing censorship, harassment and periodic imprisonment by the Franco regime.
Bardem’s “Death of a Cyclist,” from 1955, is out on DVD this week (Criterion Collection, $29.95, not rated), and it shows how a gifted, socially conscious artist was able to comment on the injustices within a society that barely tolerated dissent.
Written and directed by Bardem, “Death of a Cyclist” is a suspense thriller in which a wealthy, illicit couple run over a bicyclist in the early morning while driving home from a tryst. The couple - Maria Jose de Castro (Lucia Bose) is married to a rich industrialist while her lover, Juan Fernandez Soler (Alberto Closas), is a lackluster professor of mathematics who has gained his cushy position because of his brother’s influence - flee the accident scene, leaving the injured cyclist to die on the road.
The police don’t seem the slightest bit interested in the death of the cyclist, a poor factory worker, but Maria Jose and Juan have to worry about another factor - a nosy art critic named Rafa (Carlos Casaravilla), who travels in the same upper-class social circles as Maria Jose and Juan, tells them he saw them together in their car, suspects they are having an affair and threatens to blackmail the pair.
Adding to Juan’s woes is his lack of diligence in the classroom. While distractedly reading a short newspaper story about the cyclist being found dead on the road, he irresponsibly treats one of his best students neglectfully, resulting in her getting an undeserved poor grade. Other students, noting the unfairness of it all, respond with campus demonstrations calling for Juan’s firing.
As film scholar Marsha Kinder points out in an essay that accompanies the DVD, “Creating a Modern Spanish Cinema,” Bardem uses two types of filmmaking styles in his movie - the Hollywood-style thriller for the scenes involving Maria Jose and Juan and their pampered social strata, and Italian neorealism, borrowed from such directors as Robert Rossellini, Luchino Visconti and Vittorio De Sica, for scenes shot in the run-down, working-class neighborhood where the cyclist lived.
There is some pointed dialogue in “Death of a Cyclist,” such as when a fur-clad society matron invites Maria Jose to a canasta tournament, saying, “It’s for poor children, or stupid children, or something - but it’ll be fun.” For the most part, Bardem comments on the inequities of Spanish society, particularly the disparity in the treatment of rich and poor, without confronting the issue directly.
Bardem faced censorship throughout his career, and “Death of a Cyclist” was no exception. Before the film could be released, Spanish censors insisted that the director change the ending so that both Maria Jose and Juan would be punished for their behavior.
And in an additional demonstration of the Franco regime’s might, the director was imprisoned just as “Death of a Cyclist” was being shown at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the critic’s prize. An international outcry led to his release after several weeks.
Of course, Bardem was under scrutiny by the government from the beginning of his career in the early 1950s until the death of Franco in 1975. Just after he completed filming “Death of a Cyclist,” in May 1955 he was among a group of Spanish filmmakers who held a congress in Salamanca. At the congress, he released a passionate denunciation of Spanish filmmaking (also reprinted with the DVD):
“After 60 years of films, Spanish cinema is politically ineffective, socially false, intellectually worthless, aesthetically non-existent, and industrially crippled,” he wrote.
Bardem, whose nephew is Oscar-winning actor Javier Bardem, continued to make movies and, late in his life, television shows, both inside Spain and in other countries until the early 1990s. He was arrested several additional times over the years, made films that were confiscated and prevented from being released, and had a production company he formed with other directors, UNINCI, shut down by the government.
“Death of a Cyclist” remains one of Bardem’s most important works. Despite its being compromised by Franco’s censors, it offered the world a courageous, and rare, critique of Spanish society in the mid-1950s.