Recently I saw a classic of Spanish cinema, Juan Antonio Bardem‘s 1955 film Muerte de un ciclista, and I was engrossed. Bardem, uncle of the actor Javier Bardem, used cinema to tell stories—either directly or indirectly—about the repressions brought on by the Franco government in Spain, and Muerte is no exception. On the face of it, the film is the story of a murder. A university professor is riding along a rural roadway with his mistress—a well-connected, upper-class glamor girl—when their car strikes a working-class man on a bicycle. The cyclist survives the impact, but the couple leaves him to die, fearing that their tryst will be exposed if they help him.
After returning to their “normal lives,” the couple quickly falls into individual feelings of guilt and paranoia over the incident. The mistress becomes convinced that a manipulative art critic knows the truth about their affair, as well as the accident. She fears that he’ll either expose the couple to her rich husband or bleed them financially through blackmail. Either way, she’ll be out of what she seems to love best … money. The professor, on the other hand, loses his composure because of his feelings of guilt, and he takes his frustrations out on a young co-ed math student one day during class. (The incident has some interesting repercussions, by the way.) Tension builds between the professor, the art critic, and mistress, and it comes to the attention of her husband, which is brilliantly shown in the following sequence from the film.
(left screen to right: professor, mistress, critic, husband)
But beyond the story of a murder, Bardem investigates the dynamic of social class in this movie. During one scene, for example, the professor ventures into the poor, bombed out section of Madrid in which the cyclist lived. Posing as a journalist, he asks around for the dead’s man wife—he wants to make sure that neither she nor anyone else knows a thing about what really happened on the road that day. But the wife is gone. She went looking into the possibilities of an insurance payout for her husband’s life. We assume it’s a necessity to keep her family going. Does the professor have any concern for her needs or the repercussions of the couple’s actions on her life? Maybe. You’ll just have to see the film yourself to find out. As for the mistress, if the bicyclist’s wife doesn’t know anything she might be willing to make an anonymous donation to the poor woman’s family. But for now, she’s got a bigger problem—that pesky art critic. Oh, the follies of the upper class.