Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Death of a Cyclist - Film Review

directed by Juan Antonio Bardem, 1955

Spain is one nation which underwent a cinematic revolution during the 50s; the decade before the French, Brazilian, Czech, British and Italian ‘new waves’ that would so rock the world the next decade. And unfortunately it remains largely ignored...unfortunate, if anything, because it is that rare nation which experienced such a thing under a totalitarian, right-wing regime. Death of a Cyclist is, at this time, the only film made during the middle period of Franco’s rule of Spain that I have seen, and the only Spanish film of the era available in high quality DVD to the English speaking world. Rather fitting that it is this one if any, as this melodrama is considered a milestone of Spanish cinema, one of the first politically challenging Spanish films to receive big international attention (the first was probably Bienvenido Mr. Marshall, though I only know it by name and reputation).

In Death of a Cyclist’s opening scenes, a cyclist has been hit by a car, which is occupied by a couple, Juan and Mario Jose. The man’s first reaction is to gaze in shock at what he’s done, and the woman’s first reaction is to hurry away from the scene of the crime, while the man lies still dying. They have some petty excuse for wanting to get away (she is married, and not to him), but the scene on its own implicates them in an act which is inexcusable, and rendering both individuals as highly unsympathetic...he a weak man and a coward, and she a person with little in the way of a moral compass. And when a sleazy art critic and intellectual wryly initiates a blackmail; seemingly at his leisure, both begin to fear for their safety.

Death of a Cyclist is interesting for many reasons, not least of which is the manner it uses cinematic conventions; many of them contrasting with others, in order to illustrate its political intent. It does follow a very traditional path of narrative, though, almost reminiscent of some of Clouzot’s thrillers; a slow pace which nonetheless builds tension, and a (rather famously) contrived Hollywood ending. Both of our protaganists are of the successful middle class; the bourgeoise to use Bardem’s prefered term (he was a member of the Communist party even during Franco’s reign), and scenes set within their milieu are tinged with a hint of Hollywood gloss; oggling the faces of the lead actors (Alberto Closas, who plays Juan, was an established Spanish leading man) and making much ado about their affluence. This contrasts heavily with the scenes where Juan; intent on righting some of his wrong (but not knowing how to do it) descends into the lower class areas...scenes which look like something out of neorealism, and occupied by characters you’d expect to see in one of de Sica’s classics...or even, at times, Antonioni. And then there’s more than a touch of noir in the film, as Maria Jose takes on the very definitions of a femme fatale; completely driven by selfish cravings and then some.

At the center of the film is both its relationship and its politics, though like Cria Cuervos and Spirit of the Beehive (both films I admire), the politics can be seen only vaguly beneath many layers of symbolism...much of which I’m admittedly not privy to, but so much of which manages to seep through the film’s text unmistakebly. Juan is our main focus throughout the film, and it is his guilt over the incident that is its driving force. His moral failure with the cyclist is both inflated by, and further irritates, his own failures in life. But these failures also indicate the moral failures of the upper classes he represents, which benefit from the regime, from turning a blind eye to their role in the state of Spain, and who overall live boring and dispassionate lives. Where the film’s political angle succeeds lies in its subtext; what happens between and outside the scenes we see. We’re rarely shown the poor people that the film’s protaganists contrast so much with, but when we do, the contrast is clear, and when one really takes the time to reflect, its more and more striking.

The film’s genre shifts are not just an obvious effect...its jarring, as is much of the film, with contrast perhaps being its weapon of choice. The film’s cutting and framing are just as unusual as its offset of genre; never seeming to follow the same rules, never allowing the audience to relax, as one could be lured into complacency in one scene, and suddenly find themselves lost in the next. The effect; using purely classical devices and distorting the viewer with them, reminds me in ways of Alf Sjoberg’s Miss. I mentioned Clouzot earlier, and like Clouzot, there’s something inherrantly nasty about this film and many of its protaganists, and the way it resolves itself, even if it does seem at times to look ahead to Juan setting things straight; and this is after the threat of them being discovered has past. There’s a sense of irony in the film, and it isn’t above speaking its piece very blatantly. One of my favorite scenes involves cutting between the two well-to-do lovers; separate and dealing with the crisis (him brooding, she covering her tracks at a petty bourgeois party). The film then cuts, seamlessly and deceptively, to a very similar scene of puffery, which is quickly revealed to be a stupid movie newsreel which Juan is watching. Its as sharp a dig at the world they inhabit as can be imagined.

I can only imagine that its trappings of classical movie making, almost to a fault at times (fragmented though it is), are a strong reason as to why the film was able to pass the Spanish censors. But its political implications are difficult to ignore, especially on repeat viewings. Every main character; Juan, Maria Jose, her husband, and the sleazily desperate Rafa, exist on screen for more than one reason. Death of a Cyclist is a very challenging film, and ultimately, I think its quite rewarding.

88 / 100

Available on DVD from The Criterion Collection, with a nice (if windowboxed) pristine transfer, and a very informative booklet, with an essay on the film by Marsha Kinder, and a reprinting of Bardem’s call-to-arms for Spanish cinema, written in 1955, seemingly resulting in this film. As with Cria Cuervos and Spirit of the Beehive; the other two debuts of Spanish directors to the collection, the disc includes a documentary on the director entitled Calle Bardem (after another film of Bardem’s, Calle Mayor). It’s the only digital extra on the disc, but one well worth watching.