Saturday, July 23, 2011

#427: Death of a Cyclist

(Juan Antonio Bardem, 1955)

Death of a Cyclist is statement film, a subtly ambitious genre pic, and a terribly entertaining message movie. It's also the earliest Spanish film (in terms of theatrical release) in the collection. This seems fully appropriate - like another ambitious genre pic, Citizen Kane, it's entirely believable that an industry could have sprung from the roots it planted, such is the impact the film seems to have even now on a stagnant cinematic landscape.

The film starts with the titular event, caused by a car driven by the two main charaters, Juan and Maria. Fearing their illicit affair would come to light if they stopped to call the police, they leave the man to die on the road. That cover shot, bicycle wheel spinning at the bottom of the frame, is the closest we get to the victim. This movie isn't about the event, but rather its aftermath, which throws everything in these characters' lives, both personally and professionally into disarray. As their fates become clear, the movie slowly builds to its inevitable climax - like Hitchcock, who obviously influenced the film, Bardem generates suspense despite the fact that there is never a doubt as to where the film is headed. The flashiest section of the film is probably the first act, where time shifts all over the place while scenes are connected by seemingly separate actions (one character blows smoke, another character in a different place and time watches smoke float across their face). But the movie is consistently fresh throughout its running time, and the final result works on many levels, from classic noir to social critique.

The characters in Death of a Cyclist are richly nuanced and defiantly conflicted. This makes the wide ambition of the movie work, because Bardem was able to say everything he wanted to say while still providing an entertaining premise. The director is the uncle of Javier Bardem - probably the most famous Spanish actor after Antonio Banderas - so his family has a substantial presence in Spanish cinema. But it's this film that remains a stand out in his career - along with The Devil's Backbone (which was directed by a Mexican), this might be the best Spanish film I've ever seen.

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