Death of a Cyclist
Review by Marco Lanzagorta jul 29, 2008 at popmatters.com
Juan Antonio Bardem’s Death of a Cyclist (aka Muerte de un Ciclista) is a rather unique film that brings together a variety of aesthetic and political ideologies. Indeed, this movie combines the socially conscious style of the Italian neorealism with the arresting visual and narrative structure of the Hollywood thriller. As such, Bardem appears to have been influenced by both Roberto Rossellini and Alfred Hitchcock. The result is a dramatic story that deeply resonates with the cultural anxieties that Spanish society endured under the regime of General Francisco Franco.
To better appreciate the complex social and political commentary featured in Death of a Cyclist, it is important to understand how this film subscribes to Italian neorealism. Let us first recall the cultural and aesthetic circumstances that led to the conception and growth of this artistic movement. In a nutshell, Italian neorealism is a particular cinematic style that showcased the extreme poverty, desperation, fatalism, and social anguish that engulfed the country during the years that followed World War II. As such, most of the stories portrayed in these films were minimalist and constantly refuted narrative closure.
More specifically, the objective of Italian neorealist films was to depict the harsh conditions that haunted the poor and working classes on a day-to-day basis. To this end. these movies usually were shot on location and used nonprofessional actors. However, most likely this aesthetic decision was a consequence of the limited financial freedom available to the filmmakers.
From a visual perspective, these films are characterized by prolonged takes, long shots, and deep focus cinematography that kept the characters firmly grounded to their background. That is, because social context was primordial in the Italian neorealist films, the characters were visually trapped within an overwhelming economical and cultural landscape.
Academics and scholars appear to agree that Italian neorealism was a reaction to the cultural influence of the Marshall Plan. After WWII the US enforced the Marshall Plan, which was designed as a measure to rebuild Europe and prevent the expansion of communism on the continent. As a side effect, during the early 1940s Italian movie theatres were literally flooded with American films. Thus, the directors that forged the Italian neorealism tried to counteract such an overwhelming cultural dominance from America.
Furthermore, the films that made this aesthetic movement also attempted to rewrite history. A clear example of this attitude is Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (aka Roma, Citta Aperta, 1945), which is often credited as the first Italian neorealist movie. This film portrayed the Italians under the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini as innocent victims and subdued heroes that fervently fought Hitlerism in Europe.
Moreover, the Andreotti Law was established in 1949 with the alleged purpose of protecting Italy against the influence of imported films. This law was the brainchild of Giullio Andreotti, who was a prominent member of the Christian Democrats, the political party that was in charge of the Italian government. In principle, the Andreotti Law offered a variety of subsides and grants to neorealist filmmakers. However, its underlying objective was to ban any national or imported films that showcased the country in a negative light.
The control of the media for political and ideological means was also exploited by Franco, the dictator that ruled Spain from the end of its civil war in 1936 until his death in 1975. In particular, Franco led his country through a period of intense cultural isolation which lasted roughly from 1945 to the mid 1950s. In those years, Franco banned film imports and gave valuable incentives to those filmmakers with projects that portrayed him and Spain in a positive light.
However, it is perhaps ironic that Bardem learned from the Italian neorealism movement that incisive social criticism can be presented as a veiled subtext. Indeed, Bardem knew how to strip the Italian neorealism from its native cultural baggage, and incorporate instead the specific elements that reflected the political and social landscape of Spain during the Franco years. The result of such a deconstruction of the Italian neorealism was Death of a Cyclist.
That is, Bardem used the visual and narratives technique of the Italian neorealism to put forward a political statement that denounced the poor state of Spanish culture under the crushing influence of Franco. To this end, Death of a Cyclist features the typical lengthy takes, deep focus, long shots that portray the appalling social landscape of the poor and the unprivileged.
However, Bardem was also well aware that a film made with an overt political ideology risked both censorship and limited public interest. As a consequence, Bardem combined the socially conscious structure of Italian neorealism with the charm and excitement of the Hollywood thriller. In other words, the success of Death of a Cyclist was also due to the efficient construction and manipulation of the emotional identification of the viewer and the popular glamour of its main stars. Furthermore, the visual style of Death of a Cyclist often recalls the film noir, using low key lighting and a dramatic black and white cinematography to showcase a tale of moral ambiguity and sexual abandon.
In Death of a Cyclist, Maria Jose (Lucia Bose) is an unfaithful wife who has a torrid extramarital affair with Juan (Alberto Closas). As they are driving back home from a romantic rendezvous, they accidentally run over a cyclist in the middle of a deserted road. Maria and Juan fear that their secret love relationship will become public, so they decide to leave the man to die in the middle of nowhere. But even as they run away, their guilt will relentlessly follow them.
In a rather obvious way, from the very beginning Death of a Cyclist features the complexities of class conflict. Indeed, the murderous and adulterous couple belongs to the bourgeoisie and the cyclist to the working class. In a sense, the highlight of Death of a Cyclist is the rather unique way it merges class unrest with the moral decision of taking responsibility for one’s action.
Such a political ideology is also made evident in its relation to the Spanish Civil War, which took place from 1936 until 1939. Indeed, we are told that Juan fought the war and the place where the cyclist dies is a historic battle site with old trenches. As a consequence, Death of a Cyclist cleverly associates Juan’s personal guilt for leaving the man to die, with the country’s cultural guilt regarding the Civil War. This is a relevant connection because at that time many people felt that the Spanish Civil War only led to the oppression and suffering of the poor and working classes.
An outstanding piece of filmmaking, Death of a Cyclist was rightfully recognized at the Cannes International Film Festival in 1955. Bardem received the FIPRESCI award, granted by the International Federation of Film Critics. Created in 1930, this prize has always had the noble objective of encouraging young and innovative filmmakers.
In spite of its international success, Bardem continued to be deeply concerned with the poor state of the cinema industry in Spain. Barely a few days after receiving his award in Cannes, Bardem attended the Salamanca Congress at the esteemed University of Salamanca. The title of the meeting was “National Conversations on Film” and brought together several Spanish filmmakers to discuss the present and future of their national cinema.
Bardem’s talk, entitled “Report on the Current State of Our Cinema”, openly condemned and criticized the national movie industry. According to Bardem, “Spanish cinema is politically ineffective, socially false, intellectually worthless, aesthetically nonexistent, and industrially crippled”. For Bardem, Spanish cinema was irrelevant because it was “incapable of showing us the true nature of Spain’s problems, of its lands and people”.
Considering that Death of a Cyclist is a true masterpiece of socially conscious filmmaking, it is a shame that this film remains in obscurity in the English language world. Fortunately, the Criterion Collection has recently released a long overdue home video presentation of Bardem’s film. Typical of Criterion, Death of a Cyclist is presented in pristine video and audio quality. There are only two extra features included in this DVD presentation, an enlightening documentary on Bardem and an informative booklet with an essay by film scholar Marsha Kinder and the transcript of Bardem’s presentation at the Salamanca Congress.
Even though Death of a Cyclist is a clear amalgamation of two dramatically distinct artistic styles, the film succeeds in deconstructing the Italian neorealism and the Hollywood flick into a unique cultural product that faithfully showcased the torrid social landscape of Spain under Franco. A true classic of world cinema, the historical context of Death of a Cyclist helps us appreciate how cinema is an art, but also a powerful political and ideological tool.