Death of a Cyclist is Spanish director Juan Antonio Bardem’s response to a national cinema he famously denounced as “politically ineffective, socially false, intellectually worthless, aesthetically nonexistent, and industrially crippled.” Fittingly, his portrait of the complacent and disaffected upper class during Franco’s regime opens with a crash, as adulterous couple María José (Lucia Bosé) and Juan (Alberto Closas) accidentally run over a man on a bicycle and, fearing discovery, leave the wounded cyclist behind. The man’s death brings guilt upon Juan’s shoulders, yet it also precipitates a painful new awareness: A former idealist hollowed out by the country’s civil war, he comes to see the emptiness of his bourgeois ways as well as experience a renewal of his rebelliousness. María José, on the other hand, has no intention of trading the gilded cages supported by her husband Miguel (Otello Toso) for spiritual redemption, and soon becomes the femme fatale promised by the film’s noir-tinged strains. The most intriguing aspect of Bardem’s social critique is the way Juan’s increasing need for exposure is contrasted with the sardonic insinuations of Rafa (Carlos Casaravilla), the slimy art critic whose observations on his decadent companions (“All the ugly things you hide, I dig them up and lay them before you”) show that, within bourgeois circles, even self-critical impulses have become utterly corrupted. Unfortunately, many of Bardem’s insights are blunted by his unsubtle technique, which provides redundant dialogue (“A new bracelet versus a thousand impoverished customers” is typical party chatter) and enough shock cuts for an entire John Frankenheimer retrospective. (Bosé’s presence irresistibly invites comparison with Story of a Love Affair, but where Michelangelo Antonioni dissected his couple’s alienation with a diamond-cutter’s delicacy, Bardem for the most part merely parades it unilluminatingly.) Explicitly designed as a shock to the system, Death of a Cyclist too often settles for academic subversion.
The digitally restored image impressively captures the array of grayish gradations so essential to the film’s existential mood. The sound is sharp and clear.
In an uncharacteristically stingy package from Criterion, the only extras are the 2005 documentary Calle Bardem, which informatively situates both the film and the director in the larger context of Spanish cinema, and also a booklet which features Bardem’s notorious salvo against the country’s circumscribed film industry.
An academic but intriguing critique from a filmmaker who should be remembered for more than just being Javier Bardem’s uncle.