Friday, November 28, 2008

DEATH OF A CYCLIST (Muerte de un Ciclista, 1955)

Here is a Spanish film from the time of the Franco dictatorship that could just as easily have been an American film from the contemporary noir era. After seeing it on a Criterion DVD, I'm surprised that Americans haven't tried to remake it. It shares many noirish qualities, particularly the story formula of someone who makes a mistake and sees it multiply and escalate until it threatens to destroy him.

There are actually two people in danger: Juan Soler, a college instructor, and Maria Jose Castro, married to another man. After the film opens with a long static shot of the presumably titular cyclist riding into the distance, we see their car appear swerving out of the distance. Juan pops out of the car to check whether the cyclist is dead. Satisfied that he isn't, they hurry away. We quickly learn that the crisis impacts them in different ways. While Juan feels increasing guilt over the cyclist's eventual death, Maria Jose seems more concerned that inquiries will expose their affair. She's especially worried because Rafa, a creepy art critic in the George Sanders or Clifton Webb mode, lets on at a party that he knows things about her. Rafa despises being a mere ornament to the high society the Castros dwell in. "I see your sins, classify them, file them away,...and wait," he tells Maria. In return for his silence (about what, she isn't sure), Rafa wants her.

Juan pores over the papers looking for news of the cyclist. When he sees a report he's in the middle of proctoring a huge class while Matilde, a student, labors at a two-story blackboard on a mathematical problem. Distracted, he drives her out of the classroom, provoking a new crisis when she blames him for a failing grade. Her complaint escalates into a mass campus protest of students demanding Juan's resignation while he worries over the cyclist, visiting the man's slum neighborhood, looking in vain for his widow and eventually attending his funeral. He's self-analytical to a fault, sometimes comparing his plight to a character in a "dime-store novel." While he carries on his affair with Maria Jose, he still resents that she married Miguel Castro, a wealthier man, instead of waiting through the war (Spanish Civil, presumably) for him.

Rafa attempts to manipulate the lovers and Miguel at a party held for some visiting Americans. Sick of his insinuations, Juan confronts him in a men's room, where Rafa says he knows "despicable things" about our hero. "I have the upper hand now," he sneers, "You're all filthy scum." Juan loses it and knocks him down, but Rafa smiles. "Bad move. Now the fun starts."

Drowned out by flamenco music, Rafa whispers first into Maria's ear, then into Miguel's in a tensely edited sequence. Then a waiter summons Juan into a hall to tell him the police are waiting outside. Taunted by Rafa, Juan's ready to smash him with a chair or table before friends restrain him, while Maria is desperate to know what he told Miguel. The husband tells Rafa he doesn't believe anything he said and takes Maria away. In a rage, Rafa throws a bottle through a window. Surprisingly, this is the last time we see him.

The director, Juan Antonio Bardem, cuts from Rafa's throw to a different projectile crashing through a different window, taking us to the campus protest. It turns out the police were after Juan for his own protection because of conditions on campus. Matilde herself reappears to repent her role in the scandal, which may have escalated beyond her control. Juan assures her that everything will be fine. Then, at the cyclist's funeral, Maria assures him that "we're saved" because Rafa knows nothing about their affair. Now she suggests that they "do something for that poor man" -- the cyclist -- perhaps some money for the widow. By now, Juan has different ideas, and it turns out that Miguel is more suspicious than he let on.

Unhappy lovers Maria (Lucia Bose) and Juan (Alberto Closas) are only going to get unhappier in DEATH OF A CYCLIST

One thing I really liked about this film was the complexity of Juan's character. It looks at first as if he's going to be the good guy because he cares about the cyclist while Maria is more self-centered. But it becomes more clear as the film continues that Juan is going to an extreme beyond even what vehicular manslaughter justifies. He grows all too insistent about the need for both he and Maria to purify themselves. By the time he tells his mother, without going into detail, that "I'll be a sort of hero" by confessing his guilt, you can empathize with her comment that "I've never known how to help you." Meanwhile, Maria Jose is selfish. Miguel tells her that "your selfishness is all I've got," his only weapon in a battle to keep her. Selfish as she is, Maria also seems honestly torn between a selfish desire to remain a rich wife and her selfish desire for Juan -- with her own need for atonement possibly thrown in. But the ultimately noirish thing about the movie is the sense of doom that decisively settles over its final act. Once we have Juan musing about his future at the roadside and Maria at the wheel of a car, the outcome suddenly seems predetermined -- though not necessarily the aftermath.

This is the first film by Bardem that I've seen, and I'm impressed. He has a crisp style, preferring jump cuts to dissolves or blackouts, that looks forward in film history rather than backward. He can do sharp montages like the flamenco scene with long, moody takes of star Alberto Closas trudging through blighted cityscapes or collegiate track ovals. The transitions can sometimes get showy, but that doesn't undermine the overall effect. The cast is very good, with Italian beauty queen Lucia Bose (dubbed into Spanish) convincing as Maria Jose and Carlos Casaravilla going over the top as Rafa. I was especially impressed that Bardem pulled this off, including those college protest scenes, under a fascistic dictatorship. Possibly the only concession I can see is the "crime does not pay" fate of Maria at the end of the picture, and that's not much different from what the Breen Office (which might well have felt at home under Franco) would have insisted on in a Hollywood film of the time. As it turns out, by the time the film was winning international awards, Bardem was in jail for political reasons. Thankfully, his newfound celebrity helped him get out and back to directing.
It may be monotonous to say this, but the Criterion Collection deserves a lot of credit for reviving this item, and the Albany Public Libarary deserves some for putting it in their every-growing foreign film collection. If more Bardem films appear on DVD, I'll be in line to look.

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