In 1955, director Juan Antonio Bardem attended a symposium called the Salamanca Congress that gathered filmmakers from varied political persuasions to discuss the pitiful state of Spanish cinema under the Franco regime. His statement didn't mince words: "After 60 years of filmmaking, Spanish cinema is politically ineffective, socially false, intellectually worthless, aesthetically nonexistent, and industrially crippled." His solution was to lead by example. Bardem's loaded melodrama Death Of A Cyclist closely resembles Luchino Visconti's neo-realist Ossessione in that it imports the language and genre from another country—in Visconti's case, James M. Cain's classic noir The Postman Always Rings Twice—and uses it to nudge its national cinema in a different direction. For his part, Bardem combines Alfred Hitchcock's visual elegance and suspense with the class-consciousness of neo-realism, and the new equation lets him smuggle across some subversive ideas.
Death Of A Cyclist opens with the eponymous incident, as a speeding car collides with a bicycle in the middle of a barren rural expanse. A man jumps out of the passenger side and rushes to aid the fallen cyclist, but the driver, a startlingly beautiful, well-appointed woman, beckons him back to the car. The situation is potentially compromising for them: They're having an affair, and if it's exposed, both risk a precipitous fall down the social ladder. As news of the victim's eventual death circulates in the papers, the man, a geometry professor played by Alberto Closas, becomes overwhelmed with guilt and a desire to come clean. Meanwhile, his wealthy mistress (Lucia Bosé) frets over intimations of blackmail coming from a pianist who may have seen something.
A passionate Communist ideologue, Bardem lays out the class politics surrounding this hit-and-run a bit too bluntly at times, to where all but Closas are reduced to whatever social station they're meant to represent. But Death Of A Cyclist addresses all the grievances that Bardem mentioned at Salamanca, and it succeeds most at capturing the general climate of fear and oppression in Franco's Spain. In this atmosphere, doing the right thing takes enormous courage and invites enormous consequences, and the chilling effect is palpable.
Key features: The liner notes include a helpful primer on Bardem by USC professor Marsha Kinder, plus Bardem's scathing address to the Salamanca. The sole feature on the disc is a passable 45-minute documentary on Bardem from 2005.