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.
I feel like I start many of my posts by saying, “I don’t generally care for…” Well, I generally don’t care for Woody Allen’s films, at least those from the mid-80s on. Though I should admit that I was once a huge lover of his work from the 70s, particularly Manhattan. That film has such lush and powerful images of New York that the city itself is basically a protagonist in the film. The same is true for Barcelona in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which is easily the best Woody Allen film I’ve seen in years. I enjoyed it so much that I now regret not having seen it on the big screen when it was first released.
On the face of it, the film is about two young American women spending a summer in Cataluña before getting married (in the case of one) or getting on with figuring out what to do next in life (in the case of the other). The women, the eponymous Vicky and Cristina, meet a fiery Spanish painter (Javier Bardem) who tries to romance and seduce them with a trip to Olviedo. All the while, a wonderful Spanish soundtrack plays in the background and the golden lighting of Spain’s sunshine emits the country’s warmth to the viewer.
While the film is categorized as a romantic comedy, I found the work mostly about passion and art. And I can’t believe I just wrote that because normally such a sentence would make me groan. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is practical, yet she’s obsessed with the energy and serendipity of Cataluña. Juan Antonio (Bardem’s painter) is the embodiment of such qualities for her, and she finds her passionate attraction to him disquieting and confusing. Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), on the other hand, already lives on the fly. She actually finds the stability of a romance, albeit a three-way one, to be an enticing forbidden fruit. Meanwhile, she also finds new expression in photography. But her Achilles’ heel of dissatisfaction always looms on the horizon. And then there’s Juan Antonio’s ex-wife Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz) who is nothing but passion and artistic expression. In the past, she tried to kill Juan Antonio because of her intense feelings. Now she steps back into his life when he’s in the middle of a new romance. Cruz’ facial expressions in the film are worth a thousand Oscars alone. And have fun practicing your Spanish skills while listening to her mostly improvised dialog with Bardem.
The film also rekindled my appreciation for Allen’s humor. In particular, I keep running my favorite scene from the film over and over in my head. In it, Juan Antonio explains the philosophy of his father Julio Josep (Josep Maria Domènech) to Vicky. Julio Josep is a crusty Spanish poet who refuses to publish his work because he hates the world. By withholding such beautiful words from people, he’s punishing this place that he hates. I had no idea that poets had such power!
Posted in arte, peliculas, Reviews, viaje, video
Tagged arte, Barcelona, españa, javier bardem, Los Estados Unidos, oscars, peliculas, penelope cruz, pop culture, Reviews, video, woody allen