Death of a Cyclist (Muerte de un ciclista) [DVD]
Director : Juan Antonio Bardem
Screenplay : Juan Antonio Bardem (story by Luis Fernando de Igoa)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1955
Stars : Lucia Bosé (María José de Castro), Alberto Closas (Juan Fernandez Soler), Otello Toso (Miguel Castro), Carlos Casaravilla (Rafael “Rafa” Sandoval), Bruna Corrà (Matilde Luque), Julia Delgado Caro (Dona Maria)
Like the works of the early French New Wave or Eisenstein's silent films, Juan Antonio Bardem's Death of a Cyclist (Muerte de un ciclista) is a film forged from theoretical and ideological conviction. Produced in Spain under the Franco regime, where cinema had become, in Bardem's own words, “politically ineffective, socially false, intellectually worthless, aesthetically nonexistent, and industrially crippled,” Death of a Cyclist was a conscious attempt to infuse the Spanish cinema with new life, to show that film could speak simultaneously to the universal and the national.
The immediate inspiration for the film was Italian neorealism, which Bardem and other Spanish filmmakers saw as a meaningful aesthetic approach to dealing with the here and now. Bardem sought to bring the same immediacy, humanism, and emotional depth to his film that he saw in Robert Rossellini's Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D. (1952). At the same time, though, Bardem was influenced by Hollywood cinema, particularly melodrama and thrillers, which he fused with the neorealist aesthetic in Death of a Cyclist to produce a truly unique film that works as both tense entertainment and a critique of the class divisions in Spanish society.
The film opens on a lonely highway where we see the titular cyclist peddling up a hill. This anonymous man (we never see his face) is hit by a car off-screen that is being driven by María José de Castro (Lucia Bosé) and Juan Fernandez Soler (Alberto Closas). Juan is a low-level university professor, and María is the wife is a wealthy businessman (Otello Toso). Because they are on their way back from a sexual tryst, they are reluctant to help the dying man for fear of their relationship being revealed. So, they leave him on the side of the road and return to their lives, but find that the event haunts them, especially when an aspiring social climber named Rafa (Carlos Casaravilla) insinuates that he knows something. He doesn't say exactly what, because to keep them guessing is part of his power ploy, which only enflames their fears of losing everything.
On a narrative level, Death of a Cyclist is structured along a descent, in which we watch these two members of the upper class slowly spiral downward as their guilt and fear begins to consume them. There is a classic kind of Hitchcockian suspense here, where we are constantly on edge waiting for some great revelation, which challenges our moral preconceptions because we essentially find ourselves hoping that the adulterous couple escape charges of manslaughter. Neither María nor Juan are in any way innocent; their hitting the cyclist was certainly an unintentional accident, but their decision to leave the poor, dying man on the side of the road to expire alone in order to protect themselves is a sin of staggering proportions, a truly inhuman act that they attempt to justify, but can never truly resolve.
The humanist streak in the film is centered largely in Juan, who feels worse about the situation even though he arguable has less to lose. Bardem uses his guilt as a way of exploring the class divides in Spain, most notably in a sequence where Juan goes to the working-class housing project to find the victim's family, ostensibly to discover if they know anything. Yet, being in that social space, which is so different from the money and privilege from which he is descended, only emphasizes the monstrousness of his selfishness. This is also underscored by a subplot in which Juan unfairly fails one of his students (Bruna Corrà), which leads him to a true awakening via the recognition that both actions are interrelated, born out of his myopic preoccupation with his own self-interests. Bardem underscores these connections via the film's rather striking editing style, which uses match cuts to join disparate spaces and connect characters and actions in ways that remind us of the bonds we all share.
And that, ultimately, is what Death of a Cyclist seems to be telling us. In its intertwining of rich and poor, guilty and innocent, redemption and punishment, it creates a resonant moral universe that makes great strides in addressing the issues that Bardem felt were lacking in the Spanish cinema. Granted, General Franco would continue his fascistic rule over the country for many more years, but Spanish film was already working its way out from underneath his thumb, returning the sense of humanity, intelligence, and social commentary that are the hallmarks of truly great cinema.
|Death of a Cyclist Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||Spanish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||April 22, 2008|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Criterion's new high-definition transfer of Death of a Cyclist was made from a 35mm duplicate negative and digitally restored with the MTI Digital Restoration System. The resulting image looks good, although the obvious limitations of the source material are evident. Nevertheless, the image has a filmlike presentation that maintains good detail and decent contrast in the black-and-white photography (the Academy aspect ratio image is slightly pictureboxed). There are some shots that seem to have sustained the kinds of wear and damage that cannot be completely repaired, but these are few and far between. The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm soundtrack print and digitally restored, is crisp and natural.|
|The only supplement included on the disc is a 45-minute documentary titled Calle Bardem from 2005. It is composed entirely of talking head interviews with Bardem's various collaborators and peers, as well as historians and critics, discussing his long career and his vast impact on the Spanish cinema. The documentary will be particularly useful for those who might not be familiar with this revolutionary filmmaker.|
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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