ANOTHER BARDEM’S NEGLECTED MASTERPIECE
by Harvey Perr
published April 25, 2008
Death of a Cyclist
released by The Criterion Collection
running time 87 minutes
Now that Javier Bardem has found his place in the history of international cinema, it is about time that his uncle, the
extraordinary Spanish director, Juan Antonio Bardem, regains the reputation he won so quickly in 1955 and lost so precipitously, at least
as far as American audiences are concerned, just a few years later. As might have been expected, it is The Criterion Collection who has
taken up the cause with its release of Death of a
Cyclist, the film that won Bardem his startling rise to fame and changed forever the Spanish film style.
When the rarely seen film showed up at the Janus 50th anniversary retrospective, the print was in pretty ragged shape,
and so it is particularly thrilling to see that Criterion has brought us another of its pristine restorations that captures with such sharp
imagery the immaculate black and white and, in particular, the velvety grey tones of the film as originally conceived by Bardem and which
went on to win the International Critics Prize at Cannes in 1955. The prize may have been given at the time less for its formal cinematic
achievement than for its content – so its reappearance proves doubly revelatory – when its sly critique of Franco’s stifling regime came as
a total surprise to European audiences.
Bardem was, vocally at least, heavily influenced by Italian neo-realism, but also by the Hollywood studio system, and, although
committed to the idea of reality, the look and feel of his film has less to do with the neo-realism we now associate with the films of
Rossellini and DeSica and early Visconti than it does with the early work of Antonioni. There is less the grittiness and graininess we
expected of realism and more the carefully lit and intricately edited and beautifully composed images we recognized from a more
sophisticated and more conventional style of film-making. It is ironic that Bardem’s film helped dismantle
Spain’s studio system, a system that would have appeared to be more congenial to Bardem’s visual style. Such was the impact of the content made
by his film. It was almost as if his subject matter, rather than his directorial inclinations, was the real source of his immediate
It is an intriguing story, to say the least. Two lovers, in an attempt to cover up the discovery of their relationship, also
cover up the killing of a cyclist, an accidental murder they have committed. The woman, played by the extravagantly beautiful Lucia Bose
(who, incidentally, also starred in Antonioni’s Chronicle of a Love Affair and A Lady Without Camellias), is married to a high official; her lover is a college professor (the superb
Alberto Closas). As the film navigates through the world of a rotting ruling class where
hypocrisy is standard behavior, it simultaneously looks at the burgeoning dissatisfaction of its protesting students, through an incident
involving the male lover, who eventually sees what he has become morally, and who, subsequently, seeks redemption. The film is awash in
cynicism, and yet attempts to reach out for some kind of hope.
Today, the film’s visual style dominates its political schematics, evidence that, in film, an artist is finally measured more by
the way he looks through a camera than the way he thinks of the world; the latter will always reflect the former. And so it is a shame that
accompanying documentary, Calle Bardem, is a talking heads piece which shies away from
the imagery in his films and concentrates on how he was perceived by his contemporaries. It is hoped that Calle Major, the film which Bardem made after Death of a
Cyclist, will be rediscovered; the final images of that film are the among the most indelible in this reviewer’s memory.
This edition does include Bardem’s call to arms for Spanish cinema, which is valuable, but which again pleads a case for his
politics rather than for his politique du cinema, which Death of A Cyclist reveals to be
infinitely more essential.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com