– Juan Fernandez Soler (Alberto Closas) in Muerte de un ciclista (Death of a Cyclist)
Madrid in 1951 was a drab place. The capital of Europe’s last surviving fascist dictatorship, it presided over an impoverished and socially backward nation. Ever since the end of the Civil War (1936-39) and the victory of the Nationalist forces led by General Franco, Spain had preserved an almost medieval class structure – a whole society kept in aspic. Arts, media and public life were all strictly censored. As for Spanish cinema, one young director condemned it as “politically useless, socially dishonest, intellectually void, aesthetically hideous and industrially decrepit” (1).
That young filmmaker was Juan Antonio Bardem. Later that year, he and a group of colleagues attended a week of films hosted by the Institute of Italian Culture – all of which had been previously banned in Spain. Among the neo-realist masterworks of Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica, Bardem saw one film that would change his view of cinema forever. Cronaca di un amore (Chronicle of a Love/ Story of a Love Affair, 1950), the first feature directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, was a study of adultery and corruption among the decadent upper class of Milan. Its star, the luminously beautiful Lucia Bosé (a former Miss Italy of 1947) combined “the glamour of a diva with the magnetism of Louise Brooks” (2).
On that night, Bardem had a vision of the film he longed to make. “I had a passion for realism, on the one hand”, he recalled, “and a taste for beauty, on the other. In Chronicle of a Love, I saw them both together.” (3) He would make this film four years later as Death of a Cyclist, with the same star imported into Spain as part of a co-production deal. In his version, two adulterous bourgeois lovers run over a cyclist on their way home from a secret tryst. Fearful of exposure and scandal, they drive off and leave the man to die. The man (Alberto Closas) suffers a somewhat ineffectual crisis of conscience. The woman (Maria played by Bosé) will stop at nothing – not even murder – to protect her sexual, economic and social privilege.
An instant sensation, Death of a Cyclist won the International Critics Prize at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival, and became the first Spanish film to achieve wide international distribution. Flushed with his success, Bardem became a leading light in the historic conference at Salamanca in May 1955 – where a new generation of filmmakers and critics met to map out a brave new future. “Spanish film is and always has been a cinema of painted dolls”, the director stated (4). And so this generation’s manifesto ran. Now was their time to volver a empezar; to go back to the beginning and start again.
As the story of its making suggests, Death of a Cyclist is at once groundbreaking and strangely derivative. Even at the time of its triumph at Cannes, the young critic François Truffaut – who had seen and championed Bardem’s earlier work – now accused him publicly of plagiarism. Certainly, the debt to Antonioni is palpable in every frame – although Bardem later insisted that “Chronicle of a Love is a social story” while his film was “a political story, one hundred percent” (5). A largely irrelevant circus scene might also have been carbon-copied from Ingmar Bergman (Gycklarnas afton [Sawdust and Tinsel, 1953]) or Federico Fellini (La Strada, 1954). Towards the end, there is even a flash of Jean Cocteau and Orphée (1950). An elderly lady intones the word “Death!” and we get a quick cut to Bosé’s exquisite face, as she prepares to mow down yet another victim with her lustrous black automobile.
At moments like these, Bardem might be cannibalising anything and everybody in his bid to become Spain’s first top-class European auteur. (The exiled Luis Buñuel, at this point, was labouring in relative obscurity in Mexico.) The result is slick but impersonal, like much of the “official” Spanish cinema that Bardem so bitterly condemned. It does not help that his “political story” could only be expressed obliquely, under the ever-watchful eye of Franco’s censors. The rootless academic played by Closas describes himself as the malchico (black sheep) of his wealthy bourgeois family, and reminisces about how he “used to smash windows and run from the Guardia Civil”. Thus we may conclude that he fought for the doomed Republic during the Civil War, in defiance of his family and class.
Similarly, his friendship with a pure and idealistic young girl (Bruna Corrà) is not just a simplistic and sentimental contrast to his passion for “bad girl” Bosé. (Although, dramatically, it’s all that and worse.) Watching as her fellow students mount an illegal demonstration, he extols their “lack of selfishness, unity and solidarity” by which “the problems of one person become the problems of all”. This rather mouldy rhetoric may well reflect Bardem’s own covert Spanish Communist Party membership – an offence for which he was briefly arrested while shooting his subsequent film, Calle mayor (Main Street, 1956). Still, there’s a central lack of conviction to Death of a Cyclist that no amount of whispered political subtext can cure.
The most compelling presence in the film, strangely enough, is not the adulterous and homicidal lovers – who might well have strolled in from Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944) or The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946) – and least of all the frankly emetic “good” people. The film’s “voice” (if it has one) belongs to Rafa (Carlos Casaravilla), a corrupt and cynical art critic who tries to blackmail the duo once he gets wind of their affair. While his dialogue suggests that he lusts after Maria, his sibilant voice and mincing mannerisms (not to mention his aesthetic and “unmanly” interests) may tell a different story. At least potentially homosexual, Rafa can be identified as the film’s one genuine outsider – a man who must camouflage himself in order to survive.
His position vis-à-vis the other characters (and, by extension, the whole of 1950s Spain) can be seen as oddly parallel to that of Bardem. Arrested repeatedly for his left-wing affiliations, Bardem nonetheless rose to become director of a major production company, Uninci. (In 1961, his company would produce Viridiana, the scandalous and abortive return of Buñuel.) His was a career built, of necessity, on compromise. His point-of-view, that of an embittered yet impotent observer of a society he loathed. As the oily Rafa explains to Maria: “It amuses me to watch you all. I see all your sins. I classify them and file them away. And then I wait for the right moment to act. All the ugly things you try to hide, I dig them up and lay them out before you. For me, it’s a sort of purification.”
Loathsome though he may be, we in the audience may find ourselves engaging (or even sympathising) with Rafa in a way we do not, perhaps cannot, engage with the rest of the cast. What he says comes not from a Hollywood film noir or a communist party manifesto, but from a place of genuine conflict and pain. In a film where so much else sounds hollow, his words have the undeniable ring of truth.
Critics today revere Death of a Cyclist as a film that “restores Spanish film to an international level of discourse by unmasking social conformity and indicting a comfortable but socially illiterate bourgeoisie” (6). Its actual achievement is far more modest. The ailing status quo of Spanish cinema lasted into the twilight years of Franco. A few directors – notably Carlos Saura, Eloy de la Iglesia and Victor Erice – did manage to subvert the social order, at once more subtly and more boldly than Bardem ever dared. Bardem’s career petered out in anaemic international epics and musical vehicles for kitsch icon Sara Montiel.
Nonetheless, if we look squarely at Death of a Cyclist and its flaws, it may still be the most historically important Spanish film ever made. Not for anything it actually does… but for everything it could never hope to do.
- Juan Antonio Bardem quoted by Virginia Higginbotham, Spanish Film Under Franco, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1988, p. 28.
- Freddy Buache quoted in Dictionnaire du cinéma A-K, ed. Jean-Loup Passek, Larousse, Paris, 1995, p. 254.
- Bardem quoted by Juan Eugenio Julio de Abajos de Pablos, Mis charlas con Juan Antonio Bardem, Quirón Ediciones, Valladolid, 1996, p. 41.
- Bardem quoted by Higginbotham, p. 27.
- Bardem quoted by de Abajos de Pablos, p. 41.
- Higginbotham, p. 36.
Muerte de un ciclista/Death of a Cyclist (1955 Spain/Italy 94 mins)
Prod Co: Suevia Films/Trionfalcine/Guión Producciones Cinematográficas Prod: Manuel J. Goyanes Dir: Juan Antonio Bardem Scr: Juan Antonio Bardem, from an idea by Luis Fernando de Igoa Phot: Alfredo Fraile Ed: Margarita Ochoa Prod Des: Enrique Alarcón Mus: Isidro B. Maiztegui
Cast: Alberto Closas, Lucia Bosé, Otello Toso, Carlos Casaravilla, Bruna Corrá, Alicia Romay