Death of a Cyclist: Creating a Modern Spanish Cinema

Juan Antonio Bardem’s Death of a Cyclist (1955), one of the first Spanish films to win the critics’ prize at a major European festival, was crucial in launching the modern Spanish cinema. Bardem came directly from his triumph at Cannes to the Salamanca Congress, a national film conference organized by Objetivo, a left-wing film journal that he and others started in May 1953. The congress was attended by Spanish filmmakers, both from the left and the right, who were united in condemning the Francoist cinema. Bardem delivered the diagnosis, which was quoted nationwide: “Spanish cinema is politically ineffective, socially false, intellectually worthless, aesthetically nonexistent, industrially crippled.” When describing what a progressive cinema could be, he clearly had Italian neorealism in mind: “The problem of Spanish cinema is that . . . it does not bear testimony to our time.”

With its emphasis on depicting “Italy now,” neorealism offered Spanish filmmakers an alternative to the falsity not only of Francoist cinema but also of Hollywood melodrama. Unlike Hollywood’s three-act stories focused on individualized heroes, neorealist films strove to reveal as much about social context as characters. Neorealism relied on long takes and long shots to keep characters connected to the background, a fusion documented within the depth of field. The social context functioned as a narrative field containing many interrelated stories; that’s why the protagonist usually emerged out of a crowd of similar characters and why the narrative remained minimalist and open-ended. These films trained spectators to read people’s gestures and patterns, without needing them explained by the dialogue or by a heavily plotted story. At the end of Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952), even the clever little dog can decipher these nonverbal signs, which is what saves both himself and his master from being run over by a train. Bardem adopted this subtle visual language in the mid-1950s as an effective means of getting around Franco’s censors—a strategy that was later elaborated in the New Spanish Cinema of the 1960s and 1970s.

In the global sphere, the neorealist model helped other national cinemas resist being colonized by Hollywood, whose postwar domination of world movie markets was promoted by America’s Marshall Plan (a domination satirized in the 1953 ¡Bienvenido, Mister Marshall!, which Bardem co-wrote with its director, Luis García Berlanga). Neorealism also demonstrated how a film movement could transform the way a nation was perceived by the outside world. Roberto Rossellini’s wartime trilogy—Open City, Paisà, and Germany Year Zero—presented Italy not as a defeated Axis collaborator with Nazi Germany but as the moral center of a leftist humanism that helped defeat Fascism. Absorbing this lesson, Italy’s Christian Democrats (who came to power in 1948, with the help of the CIA) introduced the Andreotti Law in 1949 to protect the Italian film industry not only against Hollywood imports but also against domestic films they thought presented Italy in a bad light. This law was used to censor Umberto D., the last of the undisputed neorealist classics. In Spain these political lessons were duly noted both by Franco’s government (which hoped to improve its image abroad) and by the filmmakers of the opposition, like Bardem, who would soon meet in Salamanca.

Bardem was ahead of most other Spanish filmmakers, for he had already been struggling to find a visual form for opposing Francoism. Born in Madrid to a family of actors (who also spawned actress Pilar Bardem, his sister, and her brilliant son Javier), Juan originally studied to be an agricultural engineer, and was appointed to the Ministry of Agriculture, but then in 1946 he joined its cinema division, where he started making short documentaries. His career took off when he teamed up with the
comic filmmaker Berlanga, who may have had a lighter tone but who shared Bardem’s left-wing views and his conviction that Italian neorealism was the best model for filmmakers committed to modernizing Spanish cinema. In 1951, during an Italian film week in Madrid that profoundly influenced the Spanish filmmakers who later gathered in Salamanca, they had both seen Luchino Visconti’s Bellissima, which proved neorealism was compatible with comedy. Together they wrote and directed That Happy Couple (1951), and then scored a major international triumph at Cannes with ¡Bienvenido, Mister Marshall! Despite this success, Bardem then set out on his own to pursue a darker tone and different combination of conventions found in another film screened that week, Michelangelo Antonioni’s first feature, Cronaca di un amore (1950).

Bardem’s Death of a Cyclist, like the Antonioni film, combines neorealism with noir thriller—and also features the same star, Lucia Bosé, as a bourgeois adulteress suspected of a class-crossed murder. But Bardem adapts these dynamics to his own social-historical context, using them to develop three strategies that he pursued throughout his career: combining film conventions from other cultures and reinscribing them to suit contemporary conditions in Spain (a goal that was vital in a xenophobic nation where foreign movies were almost impossible to see); chronicling “the negative effects of Francoism on the psyche of Spaniards of different classes, regions, and social milieus” (to quote the late scholar Katherine Singer Kovács); and using a protagonist (frequently named Juan) who struggles against these effects by making new political choices. What Bardem demonstrated was that Spaniards could combine the contrasting models of Italian neorealism and Hollywood melodrama and leverage this dialectic to forge a new Spanish cinematic language that would be appreciated worldwide.

Death of a Cyclist borrows the language of classical Hollywood melodrama, specifically the Hitchcock thriller—its strategies of emotional identification, its glossy surface, and its glamorous close-ups that emphasize the star. Yet by exaggerating these conventions the film exposes their implicit endorsement of the destructive egotism of the bourgeoisie. Then it ruptures that style with neorealist sequences whose deep-focus shots reduce the size of the protagonist and reposition him within a broader social context of class conflict. Since the film devotes most of its screen time to the rich, it is primarily the Hollywood discourse that is reinscribed. The neorealist discourse remains intact, for it is the disruptive alternative that helps the spectator and the protagonist Juan perceive what is wrong with his life.

The film opens with the iconographic image of a desolate country road. A lone cyclist emerges from the left foreground and rides off into the background, disappearing out of the frame. Then a dark car drives forth from the background, swerving. Since the road is hilly, we do not actually see the collision, which is evoked by overly dramatic music. As in films by Rossellini and Antonioni, we are expected to fill in the gaps. When the film cuts to a close-up of the bourgeois couple in the car, we are firmly positioned within the narrative vehicle of melodrama. The close-up immediately leads us to identify with the individualized bourgeois killers, María José and Juan, rather than with the anonymous working-class cyclist whose face and corpse we never see. When the couple gets out of the car to examine the victim, we see only the wheel of his broken bicycle spinning in the foreground. The man says he is still alive, but the woman, who was driving, summons her companion back to the car. As they drive off and leave the cyclist to die in the road, they evoke the glamorous Daisy and Gatsby in a similar incident from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

This opening introduces a pattern of perpetual slippage between alternative ways of reading scenes, determined by conscious stylistic choices: of what to show and what to omit, of which character to hold on, of whether to use a close-up or a long shot, of what sound will accompany the image (like the monotonous rhythm of the windshield wipers that heightens the tension). These images don’t seem natural or inevitable as in most Hollywood films; they appear to be deliberate choices with specific ideological implications.

The issue of taking responsibility for choices is also central to the plot. It is the position Juan reaches at the end of the film and which is imposed on María José both by her lover, Juan (who wants her to go with him to the police to confess), and by her husband, Miguel (who wants her to go abroad with him to escape). Though this theme has existential resonance, it becomes distinctively Spanish by being connected with the civil war. We learn that Juan and María José were engaged before the war, but that when he went off to fight for Franco she married Miguel. The war emptied Juan’s life of meaning, but he later admits the war was only an excuse: “You can blame everything on it.” In the final sequence, we discover that the location of the accident had been a major battlefield in the civil war and the site of the trenches where Juan brooded over María José. Bardem’s choice of this setting forces us to confront the responsibility of their class not only for the death of the working-class cyclist in the melodrama but also for the slaughter of so many Spaniards in the civil war.

The link to Hitchcock is made explicit in the party sequence that follows the opening, where the parasitical art critic Rafa sings a song called “Blackmail” because he has seen María José and Juan together in her husband’s car. Later, in an art gallery (exhibiting modernist painters like Klee), Rafa remarks that chantaje (blackmail) “is an ugly word that’s not even Castilian,” evoking Franco’s law of allowing only Castilian to be spoken in Spanish movies. The word also evokes the title of Hitchcock’s 1929 thriller Blackmail, the first sound film made in England, which also focuses on a couple trying to cover up a murder that the woman has committed and being blackmailed by an odious little man. But Bardem reverses the class positions. Whereas Hitchcock’s murder victim is an artist, the killer a shopgirl, and the blackmailer a subproletariat criminal, Bardem places the blackmailer in the art world and makes the victim a worker and the killers members of the bourgeoisie. They belong to the international set who want to modernize Spain and position it with the Western capitalist democracies, whose paintings, novels, and movies are frequently cited.

The dynamics of melodramatic identification are most effectively revealed in a brilliant sequence that intercuts between María José in her brightly lit, modernist flat, trying to persuade her husband, Miguel, to take her away from Madrid, and Juan smoking alone in his traditional, dark bedroom. The Manichaean contrast in lighting, decor, and tone helps to underline the moral difference in the way the two lovers cope with the manslaughter—to escape or to brood, the same respective reactions they had during the civil war. Although nothing really happens in this sequence, the visual style is so excessive that it functions as one of those hysterical moments of melodrama in which the repressed desire of the characters is displaced onto the mise-en-scène. After large, matching facial close-ups of Juan and María José in separate spaces, she gestures to her husband to come to her, and the film cuts to Juan walking forward, then shows him in increasingly larger and longer close-ups, as if substituting him for her husband, whom he physically resembles. Even the dialogue calls attention to these visual dynamics, for María José and her husband talk of “missing someone” and “being bored by the same faces.” The exaggerated pattern of cutting between the matched gazes of the lovers in close-up links them together as if they were in the same room, underlining their adulterous relationship in the romantic triangle and their complicity in the manslaughter. It also positions them within the same social-ideological space in terms of class position and the same foregrounded space in terms of narrative—a space from which the cyclist and the neorealist aesthetic are barred and whose gaps the language of classical Hollywood melodrama so artfully smooths over. But in this sequence, those tricks of continuity are pushed to the point of parody, particularly when Juan exhales smoke and María José brushes away the smoke from her husband’s cigarette in the very next shot.

This artificially unified space is dismantled in a series of subsequent sequences featuring depth-focus compositions that further expose the ideological dynamics of melodrama. Opening with a close-up of a geometric diagram being drawn on a blackboard by a young woman, the first of these scenes cuts to a medium shot of Juan, a university lecturer, in the foreground, seated next to a male colleague, and then to a long shot of the entire classroom, in which a group of anonymous students function as spectators. After his colleague leaves the room, Juan reads a newspaper, ignoring the test in progress. As if to emphasize his actions and efface the crowd, the camera moves in to increasingly tighter close-ups as Juan discovers the article he is looking for, “Muerte de un ciclista,” then closes in on the single word muerte, then on details of his face, and finally on his eyes. Visibly shaken, he turns back to the class of spectators (who are more interested in the math than the melodrama) and interrupts the performance of the student, who is also shaken, thinking she has failed. At this point she is still an anonymous victim like the cyclist, whose actions have accidentally collided with those of a star. But this time, because of the alternating close-ups between Juan and the student, we see the face of the victim registering humiliation and pain.

Ultimately this student will help redeem Juan and will mediate between the stylistics of Hollywood melodrama and neorealism. She first becomes an individualized character, named Matilde Luque, in a scene where she comes to Juan’s office to protest the unjust grade he has given her. She enters the room from deep in the background and gradually reveals Juan reading in the foreground. As she keeps moving closer to the camera, she challenges his dominance over the frame and over spectator identification. When the film cuts to a reverse shot, Matilde becomes the larger figure in the foreground, and Juan is reduced to a small figure in the background. This intercutting between reverse shots clearly reveals the ideological implications of camera positioning.

The film’s key neorealist sequence wrenches Juan out of the ideological space he has previously shared with María José and their class and accentuates the competition between the respective conventions of neorealism and Hollywood melodrama. It begins with a socialite wedding, during which someone reminds María José about a canasta game to raise money for underprivileged children. The film cuts directly to an illustrative shot of such children playing in rubble outside a suburban tenement—a jarring contrast between the empty words of the melodrama and the emotive power of the neorealist documentation of contemporary working-class conditions. Although Juan is out of place in this setting, he is pursuing a potentially redeeming goal: finding the family of the dead cyclist. As in the opening, we don’t see the individualized faces of these working-class characters, the widow and child. Instead they are represented by others who are similar. One neighbor tells Juan: “All the flats are alike . . . My husband worked with hers. It might have happened to him.” When the film cuts from a close-up of Juan on a balcony, gazing down at the family of the dead cyclist, to what appears to be the object of his gaze—a long shot that evokes the neorealist treatment of the tenement—at first we do not realize that we are watching rich guests at the socialite wedding. This momentary confusion highlights the class discourse as well as the power of cinematic conventions in determining how spectators read an image. Then María José and Miguel move into the foreground, reclaiming the space for melodrama.

When María José is summoned to a telephone call from Juan, who is in a working-class café, the film intercuts between the two stylistics and their contrasting uses of depth composition. At the wedding, she is dramatically posed on an elegant high-backed chair in the foreground, while deep in the background we see in a mirror the artfully arranged reflections of Rafa and Miguel talking, perhaps about her affair with Juan. Despite the tense contrast between foreground and background, both melodramatic conversations draw attention to the self-centered goals of each player. But in the café, while Juan is individualized in the foreground as he talks on the phone to María José, in the background the anonymous waiter and customers pursue their ordinary daily routines. When he hangs up, Juan abandons the foreground and walks off into the neorealist depth of field, where he no longer has a privileged position over the many cyclists passing by, who could have ridden right out of Bicycle Thieves (another film screened during the Italian film week in Madrid).

Melodrama recaptures the narrative when its various revelations—concerning adultery, blackmail, and manslaughter—climactically converge. It occurs in the sequence where the Spanish bourgeoisie are entertaining American VIPs. Echoing ¡Bienvenido, Mister Marshall!, the scene shows clichéd Andalusian stereotypes being shamelessly exploited as commercial spectacle to attract American capital, a goal Rafa mockingly makes explicit: “This one’s in honor of the USA . . . Something ‘typically Spanish’ . . . Olé, olé, toreador.” What is new is the skillfully choreographed convergence of the clichés from the españolada (with all of its Gypsy inflections) and the cinematic language of the Hollywood thriller—two forms of melodrama that Spaniards can safely exploit in pandering to global tastes. When the blackmailer taunts the lovers, the flamenco drowns out the dialogue, which we don’t need to hear because we already know the conventions. The rest of the sequence works by dramatic exchanges of gazes and glances, fast cutting among close-ups that grow successively larger, as if parodying earlier sequences but with an emotional impact that still works with audiences attuned to melodrama.

The sequence ends with Rafa angrily throwing a bottle through a window, protesting against the class he both hates and envies. This melodramatic act of a selfish opportunist segues into unselfish collective action—the breaking of a window by student demonstrators, who demand Juan’s dismissal for his unjust treatment of Matilde. Again, this exaggerated cutting on action calls attention to the spatial and thematic rupture and to the precise moment when the film moves away from its moral attack against the bourgeoisie and finally refers directly to actual political events—the student demonstrations occurring in Spain in the 1950s. Juan can now see through his egocentrism and accept responsibility for the two injustices he committed, unintentionally, against workers and students, a coalition that has historically proved important for revolutionary change.

Juan describes himself as a modern antihero who begins to win once he renounces his class privilege. Yet he also functions as an ironic inversion of the left-wing Churruca brother Pedro from the historical melodrama Raza (1941), written by Franco and a fictionalized version of his own family history. Like Pedro, Juan comes from a “heroic” family whose father and good brothers fought for Franco and were martyred in the war. He also has a loving mother who embodies patriarchal law in her husband’s absence and oversees her children’s development into loyal Francoist subjects. Nevertheless, like the Churruca matriarch, she fails to understand her complex wayward son. Like Pedro’s last-minute conversion to the nationalist cause, Juan’s conversion is inspired by an idealistic young woman and ultimately leads to martyrdom. But the ideological positions are reversed, for Juan moves from right to left and is martyred not by the political cause he betrays but (like a noir hero) by the femme fatale he desires.

As in Raza, melodrama demands narrative closure, and Juan, who has broken out of its ideological space, becomes its final victim. When Spanish censors insisted that María José also be punished, Bardem obliged by adding a third fatal car crash, taking one last swipe at the suturing function of the close-up. In the final, grotesque shot of María José’s inverted face, which is illuminated by the flashlight of the passing cyclist she tried to avoid hitting, the function of the facial close-up is ironically reversed. Instead of arousing our sympathy or identification, it gives us pleasure by revealing the witch is dead and by punctuating the ironic rhyming reversals of the exaggerated narrative closure. In the final image, our sympathetic identification is carried by the anonymous Spanish cyclist, whose face we see this time and who rides off to find help, like the filmmakers at Salamanca, in the neorealist depth of field.

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