DEATH OF A CYCLIST (Juan Antonio Bardem, 1954)

In Franco’s fascist Spain, María José and Juan are having a secret affair. María José is the wife of Miguel, an industrialist who benefited from supporting Franco; María José never loved her husband, but Miguel was her ticket to the sweet life, because money stays current even while class loses its grip. For his part, otherwise unattached lover Juan secured his teaching post thanks to a Francoist in-law. A student uprising calling for his ouster ignites former idealist Juan’s “journey back to himself.”
     Juan Antonio Bardem’s Muerte de un ciclista opens with María José and Juan together on the road. They are out in the country; only a small skeletal tree—symbolical of the barren outcome of the Spanish Civil War—marks the particular spot where the car that María José is driving hits and takes down a working-class bicyclist. Juan’s impulse is to help the fallen man; but María José will have none of that. Helping the stranger will expose her and Juan’s affair, which in turn will jeopardize her marriage. This she will not allow to happen. Later, when Juan feels he and María José should turn themselves over to the police, she runs him down at the spot where she had earlier hit the bicyclist. Again, she selfishly seeks to retain her lifestyle and position.
     The aspect involving the students is the lamest, murkiest part of the film. Otherwise the film is striking, intense, sometimes brilliant. Three passages stand out: Juan’s visit to the poverty-stricken tenement where the accident victim lived; at an event, art critic Rafa’s attempts to taunt María José and incite her spouse, with fear-generating two-shots of him and either, each shot silent but for the ambient noise and music; the stunning, ironical finish when, rushing back home to Miguel after having murdered Juan, María José disastrously swerves to avoid hitting a bicyclist. Another irony: censorship dictated this perfect ending. Bardem’s best shot: María José’s upside-down face, a death mask, which Bardem repeats to differentiate between her objective death and the spiritual death for Spain implicit in the bicyclist’s observation of this before he selfishly, anonymously takes off*—as María José herself once did.

* But I may be wrong. Olivier Stockman, who has just seen the film, has e-mailed me this: “I think you should look at it again because the end is not as you wrote in your article: on the contrary, the cyclist (working class guy) hesitates, but decides to go towards the house with lights, presumably to say there has been an accident. He doesn’t selfishly, anonymously take off, as María José did. On the big screen this was very clear.”

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