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Death of a Cyclist
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Death of a Cyclist

In Spanish director Juan Antonio Bardem's lacerating Death of a Cyclist (1955), released in America as Age of Infidelity, a couple traveling through the countryside strike a man on a bicycle. When they get out of their car to examine him, they find that he is injured but not dead. But instead of helping the man, Juan (Alberto Closas) and Maria Jose (Lucia Bosé) do the unthinkable. They flee - rather than reveal that they have been carrying on a long-term affair.

When they return to Madrid, the couple pay a terrible price for their deception. Guilt begins to gnaw away at them, especially at Juan, who is also experiencing conflict with his young students over an ethical issue at the university where he teaches.

Maria Jose is less bothered by the moral implications of killing a man, as she is fearful that her affair will be discovered and her social position slip should her wealthy industrialist husband Miguel (Otello Toso) find out. Matters become even more complicated when the couple discover a member of their social circle, a hanger-on and art critic, Rafa (Carlos Casaravilla), may know something about their affair and the crime and intends to trade on what he knows for money.

Maintaining an intense level of suspense, director Juan Antonio Bardem examines not only the burden of guilt, but also a Spanish society of disturbing schisms where people like Juan and Maria Jose operate above the law, in a bubble of wealth and privilege, while far below people like the dead cyclist's family and neighbors struggle to survive. These themes are further articulated in a haunting musical score by Isidro B. Maiztegui.

Unlike the dominant cinema of the day, Bardem veered away from the militarist, costume dramas and literary adaptations preferred during Francisco Franco's dictatorship. Highly influenced in tone and style by Italian neorealism, Bardem helped bring Spanish cinema to international prominence with his socially conscious and stylish films.

Bardem, who initially trained as an agricultural engineer, would go on to direct a number of other films which often concentrated on a central character named Juan and his disgust with the suffocating society in which he lived.

Death of a Cyclist was hailed by the international film community and became a winner of the International Critics Award at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival. At least one American critic was unable to appreciate Bardem's gift. In an ungenerous and shortsighted review in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther criticized Bardem's unique style in which the lovers are perpetually linked through editing, a self-consciously artful device which Crowther misunderstood as a technical deficiency.

At the time of his Cannes award, Bardem was serving a prison sentence for his political beliefs, until international outcry eventually led to his release from prison. Nevertheless, Bardem was arrested a total of seven times under Franco.

Spanish cinema under Franco was a stifled and sterile industry, kept under strict government control. Bardem was one of the few brave filmmakers to question the psychological and political oppression of the day and deal with the realities of contemporary life. As Bardem wrote in a 1955 manifesto of film principles being adopted by the Spanish filmmaking vanguard, "Spanish cinema has turned its back on reality and is totally removed from Spanish realistic traditions as found in paintings and novels."

Biting social criticism was the foundation of Bardem's work beginning with his first film, That Happy Couple (1953) co-directed by frequent collaborator Luis Garcia Berlanga, ironically enough, about a chronically unhappy couple.

In 1953, Bardem founded a Spanish film journal Objectivo which would become the voice of the country's cinemaphiles before it was banned, just two years later, by the Franco government.

Bardem continued his critique with his most acclaimed film, Death of a Cyclist. Though scathing for showing the stark, cruel divisions between rich and poor in contemporary Madrid, the film also offered some concessions to Franco moralism. At the film's end, Maria Jose must be punished for her role in the affair and tragic accident, much in the way the wayward women in Hollywood melodramas were invariably punished for their transgressions. Bardem's films were also frequently censored and reedited to bring them more in line with Franco-era politics.

In 1958 Bardem, acting as president, founded the independent production company UNINCI. Under his leadership, Luis Buñuel was invited back to Spain from exile to make Viridiana (1961). But Buñuel's film was banned and UNINCI was closed down for co-producing the film. Though he continued to make films, often international co-productions in Italy and France and works in Spain such as The Mysterious Island of Captain Nemo (1973) starring Omar Sharif, Bardem suffered for the remainder of his career under Franco's restrictions. Unfortunately, his death in 2002 meant that Bardem did not live long enough to see the cultural freedoms that came about after Franco's death.

Director: Juan Antonio Bardem
Producer: Georges de Beauregard, Manuel J. Goyanes
Screenplay: Juan Antonio Bardem from a short story by Luis F. Delgoa
Cinematography: Alfredo Fraile
Production Design: Enrique Alarcón
Music: Isidro B. Maiztegui
Cast: Lucia Bosé (Maria Jose), Alberto Closas (Juan), Otello Toso (Miguel), Carlos Casaravilla (Rafa).
BW-88m.

by Felicia Feaster

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