Saturday, November 14, 2015

Death of a Cyclist

“Politically futile, socially false, intellectually worthless, aesthetically valueless, and industrially paralytic.” If all these words seem like contrived synonyms to you, then merely convey the intensity of the man speaking them. Juan Bardem is considered one of Spain’s most revered filmmakers: he was uncle to Javier Bardem, the half-crazed murderer who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for No Country for Old Men. The Bardems were also leftists: during Francisco Franco’s fascist regime they were looked down on. And Juan Bardem, the most determined Spanish filmmaker of his time, sought to change the decadent film industry of his country to a more realistic strain.

He did this with a remarkable film: Death of a Cyclist. It is a film that not only attacks the society of his time: it is also a work that rallies against the filmmaking style of his country. Here is a film whose main incident – an accident – is used to propel its entire story from beginning to end. The incident at Bardem’s hands becomes a means of projecting his own vision – of the upper class, the middle class clambering onto the social ladder for success, and of illicit romance brought about by class hierarchy. Here is a story where the ending – the lovers’ betrayal of one another – is told anti-climatically, with a suddenness that shakes you, but with icy emotion.

Death of a Cyclist begins with the accident straight away – no frilled beginnings, no slow set-ups. A humble cyclist – whose identity is kept from us – collides with a car driven by a University assistant lecturer with his girlfriend (who happens to be the wife of a powerful patron of that University). To keep their affair a secret they drive on, leaving the man to die. But their situation almost immediately deteriorates: at a party an insignificant art critic called Rafael mentions the word “blackmail” to the girl – so obliquely that she at once guesses the worst.

And she is right: in a tentative sequence at a deserted art exhibition, the two of them exchange spiteful remarks until the truth outs: he knows something about her and the lover, and – in return for what we are never fully made aware of – he will keep quiet. But he doesn’t: her husband is told something, and she herself does not hear what. Only much later, after two-thirds of the story is done, do we get it that the secret had nothing to do with the accident. By that time, the lover has had enough disillusionment to last a lifetime: after a visit to the cyclist’s neighbourhood and an encounter with University protestors, he resigns from his lectureship and decides to confess to the Police. The woman, however, who with Rafael’s failed attempt has grown complacent, refuses to accompany him, and, in a shocking anti-climax, betrays him.

What marks out Death of a Cyclist from the usual brand of political drama is, of course, Bardem’s vision: he does not explicitly condemn the lovers, and indeed, he seems to reserve his most stifling judgment on Rafael, the middle-class writer whose only obsession seems to be clinging on the social ladder (“It’s fun observing you. I see your sins, classify them, file them away, and wait... for the right moment to act,” he tells the girl at the exhibition, “All the ugly things you hide, I dig up and lay before you. It’s a means of purification”). Indeed this is what Bardem criticizes the most: a society where conventions and dictates are fanatically respected, where even the slightest deviation is condemned, exploited, and trodden on.

It is understandable thus that Bardem was heavily censured by authorities at the time of its release: he was forced to edit the original ending, where the girl escapes unpunished for her crime, to suit a more “retributive” ending. Ironically the final image of this ending – a humble cyclist who, having caused the girl’s death, heads to get help from a nearby farm – explicitly juxtaposes with the beginning, where the two lovers leave the old cyclist behind, mercilessly. The censure did not end there: while making his next film, Calle Mayor, Bardem would be imprisoned.

For its time, however, Death of a Cyclist was a landmark in Spanish cinema: it would go onto win the coveted FIPRESCI Award at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. With it, as ever, he sought to move the Spanish cinema from the “politically futile” and “industrially paralytic” state it had been brought to after the Civil War.