Death of a Cyclist (1955)
Directed by Juan Antonio Bardem
Produced by Manuel Goyanes
Screenplay by Juan Antonio Bardem
Story by Luis Fernando de Igoa
Cinematography by Alfredo Fraile
Edited by Margarita de Ochoa
Distributed by Janus Films
(1:28) New to me - FilmStruck
When most movie fans hear the name Juan Antonio Bardem, they naturally ask, “Is he related to Javier Bardem?” Yes he is, but he should be better known as an incredible filmmaker. (Juan Antonio is Javier’s uncle, by the way.) Although Bardem (an antifascist) remained in Spain during Franco’s reign, he did it the hard way, going in and out of prison’s revolving doors while trying to make his films. Death of a Cyclist (Muerte de un ciclista) is his most famous film and for good reason.
Driving home to Madrid after an illicit assignation, rich socialite María José de Castro (Lucia Bosè, left) and her university professor lover Juan Fernandez Soler (Alberto Closas Lluró, right) accidentally hit a bicyclist with their car. They check to make sure he’s still alive, then flee the scene, fearful of having their affair exposed. The cyclist’s death makes the newspapers and the two lovers are forced to confront what they should do versus what they want to do.
It’s almost certain that no one witnessed the accident on such a remote highway, but the ever-present socialite Rafael “Rafa” Sandoval (Carlos Casaravilla, right, in an amazing performance) seeks to blackmail the couple. Juan tells María that they should turn themselves in, but María refuses, knowing that it would destroy her socially. Meanwhile, Juan has another crisis to deal with. He has unfairly failed one of his geometry students and is being challenged for it.
Death of a Cyclist is gloriously ambitious, but it succeeds on every level it attempts. Bardem exposes the slothfulness of the affluent while at the same time critiquing the Franco regime. María is so intent on protecting her world of privilege that she’ll do anything to maintain it while Juan is ready to make any sacrifice for love. Interestingly, María’s husband Miguel (Otello Toso) and Juan look very much alike, seemingly asking the question: how can you tell democracy and fascism apart when you’re just looking at the surfaces?
Bardem’s film is astounding in that it delivers much philosophical food for thought while also acting as a totally entertaining thriller. Death of a Cyclist was the winner of the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI Prize) at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival. You can still see the film on FilmStruck or check out the Criterion DVD.
Next time: Ida Lupino sings!
Photos: DVD Beaver, Janus Films