(Images from the Spanish language blog at http://bachilleratocinefilo.blogspot.nl/2015/03/7-dias-de-enero-1979-alejandro-berna.html)
This screening was part of this year’s ¡Viva! Festival’s focus on La transición – the period in which Spain struggled to move from fascism to multi-party democracy in the second half of the 1970s. Advertised as 170 minutes long, I did fear that the film itself might be a struggle, but the archive 35mm print seemed to be intact and ran for around 130 always watchable minutes. The title refers to the seven days in January 1977 when violence enacted against students, workers and Communist Party supporters in Madrid by the police and fascist ‘guerillas’ threatened to lead to an all-out confrontation. The opening scenes of the film offer newsreel footage and titles hammered out like telex messages detailing the ‘real events’. What follows is a form of dramatic ‘reconstruction’ of some of the events with, as the titles inform us, some ‘narrative invention’. They suggest that the film’s job is to represent the events, not to act as the judicial system.
The film was directed by Juan Antonio Bardem, himself a Communist Party member who had been imprisoned at various times by Franco’s regime but who nevertheless had survived as a practising filmmaker, often disguising the messages of the films he had written and directed himself and with Luis García Berlanga. I was already familiar with aspects of Bardem’s work from a Leeds International Film Festival screening of Death of a Cyclist (1955).
The focus of the narrative is on two sets of mainly young people (i.e. in their twenties and thirties). One group are labour lawyers, mainly Communist Party members or supporters, who are helping independent trades unions in their struggles with both employers and the ‘official’ unions set up by Franco’s regime. These lawyers have rented an office on Atocha Street in the centre of Madrid and close to the streets where left-wing street protests have been met with over-zealous policing. The second group comprises a trio of young men who are part of a right-wing organisation attempting to prevent the return to democracy, primarily by adopting a strategy of ‘creating tension’ (a strategy imported from Italy). Their hope is that the confusion and anger they will create will ‘justify’ a coup d’état by the military and the overthrow of the provisional government established since Franco’s death in 1975. It occurred to me later that Bardem had adopted a similar approach to that adopted recently by Gurinder Chadha in Viceroy’s House (2017) – and which has generated criticism. The approach involves focusing on a romance between two characters as a means of drawing the audience into the personal, ‘human’ stories of individual characters in the hope that this will help us understand the political struggles.
The character who is given most screen time is Luis María Hernando de Cabral, an upper middle-class young man, the son of a decorated soldier killed by the ‘Reds’. His mother Adelaïda (French actress Madeleine Robinson) is the personal assistant to Don Tomás (French actor Jacques François), a powerful man who is secretly the leader of the right-wing forces planning insurrection. Luis María is courting Pilar, the younger daughter of Don Tomás, and also training with two other men for ‘guerrilla activity’. The courtship provides us with evidence of the rigid moral stance of the fascist hierarchy such that Pilar and Luis María cannot even spend a night together. The relationship seems to disappear in the later stages of the film (Andy Willis, who selected the film for the festival, joked that this might account for the ‘missing’ 40 mins – or at least be part of it). The focus on the fascists and this family seems odd. Why not choose one of the young communists – or at least choose both? The clue, I think is in Bardem’s earlier work, such as Death of a Cyclist. That film focused on a university teacher with a wealthy girlfriend who is ashamed of the way he (and by extension his social class) behaved after a cyclist was knocked down. In 7 dias de enero Bardem offers us a weak central character, a young man trapped by devotion to his father’s legacy, who is in practice an ineffective fascist – he doesn’t train well on a shooting range and is unreliable in a crisis. One reading would be that Luis María is the ‘human’ face of the fascists – the others being more ‘typical’ in their thuggish behaviour. These thugs could survive in the new Spain and as we learned in the ‘One Hour Introduction to The Politics of La transición’, one such character could be found in Marshland (La isla mínima, Spain 2014). Gradually the thugs will be replaced. But it’s the characters like Luis María who must change during the transition period.
The other more practical reason for a filmmaker to focus on the right-wing upper class families is the sheer number of characters in the script and the necessity to include non-professional actors (Manuel Ángel Egea as Luis María does not seem to have any previous credits). I suspect that several of the trade unionists and lawyers are played by non-professionals. Their narrative is much more collectivist and only a handful of them are picked out for dialogue scenes. The most charismatic is the trade union leader Joaquín Navarro (I can’t discern if he is played by a professional actor) and from the lawyers, the young woman (see the image above) who was one of the survivors and who is required to pick out the perpetrators from a line-up. The film is accurate in terms of broad details of the events and I won’t spoil the narrative too much, but simply record that the main thrust of the events is a plan to assassinate the Atocha lawyers. If you want to know the details they are available online. The blog from which I’ve taken screengrabs actually explains who many of the characters in the film are and how they refer to the historical figures involved in the real events (see the first image).
Overall, I found this to be a fascinating film and I was taken back to the late 1970s when so much else was happening that I don’t think I paid as much attention to these events as I should. I first visited Madrid in 1981, a few weeks after the attempted coup d’état when army officers attempted to take over the Congress of Deputies. It seemed peaceful enough but obviously I didn’t realise what was happening behind the scenes. In retrospect, the political transición was possibly less violent that many had feared and Spain eventually achieved a return to the European mainstream in not much more than ten years – and certainly by 1992. Bardem’s film (in cinemas in France just over two years after the events depicted) is a valuable resource in understanding many of the emotions and beliefs of the period.
The first major collaboration between Juan Antonio Bardem and Luis García Berlanga was this unusual social comedy, made in 1951 but not released until 1953 after the success of the same pairing’s Bienvenido Mister Marshall. The script by Bardem focuses on a young working-class couple, Juan (Fernando Fernán Gómez) and Carmen (Elvira Quintillá). He’s an odd-job man in a film studio and she’s a seamstress and they live in rented rooms. Bardem applies a fractured narrative structure to the story which is at first a little confusing. Eventually, we see how they met and got married and then how Juan’s various schemes to get rich run up against Carmen’s dreaming at the pictures and her love of the lottery and competitions. The scenes in the cinema make direct references to censorship when a woman in the audience cries out “they’ve cut the kiss again”.
Juan works for a ramshackle film production company and the ‘exposure’ of filmmaking techniques in the studio is matched by Juan’s explanations of how films work during the cinema screening with Carmen and other sequences when Juan visits a stage show and tries to engage in conversations with an actor and a crew member operating sets on stage. As well as this kind of ‘deconstruction’, the script satirises Carmen’s small stakes gambling and Juan’s correspondence course which promises ‘Happiness through electronics!’. All of this is light-hearted fun which gently punctures the inflated sense of a glowing future promised by the fascist regime. But the last third of the film ups the stakes when Carmen wins the big prize offered by Florit soap. She and Juan become ‘The Happy Couple’ who are given a chauffeur-driven day touring the top shops and hot-spots of Madrid. The sequence corresponds to some extent to those Hollywood comedies in which the ‘hick from the sticks’ comes to the city and becomes the butt of jokes about etiquette and social conventions. Juan and Carmen aren’t ‘rubes’, but they aren’t familiar with fancy dining and nightclub trickery. Laden down with gifts they finally rebel and give away everything to the vagrants sleeping on park benches. Berlanga’s comedic treatment is much broader in its attacks on the myths of prosperity under Franco than Bardem’s approach in Death of a Cyclist.
Gómez, the actor playing Juan (often the name of the male protagonist in Bardem’s scripts) was a very well-known actor in Spain and he also appears as the bee-keeper in Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), one of the later allegorical films taking aim at the final days of Franco’s regime. As an established actor in 1951 he was one of the supporters of Bardem and Berlanga’s attempts to inject some realism and some criticism into the films. In one sense, Berlanga’s comedy approach with its ‘softening’ of the pain of low wages and unemployment fitted in with what has been termed a ‘gentle and agreeable version’ of realism which became popular in the early 1950s. But this was a form of realism which directly supported the Catholic Church and was largely devoid of political comment. That Happy Couple went much too far in depicting social reality as the basis for comedy and this was why the censors made it more difficult for the film to gain wide distribution. Making sense of this now in the UK is difficult because we don’t have much of a chance of seeing the ‘acceptable’ face of Spanish Cinema in the early 1950s (though the spoof of the historical drama production on which Juan is assigned to catch the Queen who leaps to her death from a balcony is at least one indication). Perhaps it is just as well!
Muerte de un ciclista features in the short retrospective of films by Luis García Berlanga and Juan Antonio Bardem offered at the 28th Leeds International Film Festival. Unfortunately this title appeared to be projected from an American DVD, but even so its status as an important film produced in Spain under the Franco regime was not in doubt.
The screening was introduced (sorry, I missed the speaker’s name – anybody know?) and we were told about Bardem’s difficulties with censorship. Apparently the censors refused his original ending but Bardem tried the strategy of offering multiple choices for an alternative ending, gambling perhaps that the censors would be hoist with their own petard. I’m still thinking about how the final version actually works in terms of ideological struggle.
The film has been discussed as relating to various styles and genres. I was surprised by the extent to which I began to see it as a film noir. Partly I think it is because of the strong performance of Lucia Bosè as a convincing femme fatale – albeit seemingly weak, but in practice deadly in her selfishness. Bosè, though still only 24, was a former Miss Italy and already a star, but was about to move to Spain to marry the leading matador Luis Miguel Dominguín. She has great erotic appeal in the film despite some of the unflattering early 1950s fashions. Her early successes were in neo-realist films and these offer another starting point for classifying Muerte de un ciclista.
The film begins with the incident that provides the title. Lucia Bosè is María, a wealthy married woman driving her lover Juan (Alberto Closas) back from a tryst when her car hits a cyclist on an open road. Juan wants to try to save the dying man, but María hurries him away fearing exposure. The man does indeed die and the lovers realise that they are going to have to live with the fear of exposure. This fear is heightened by the local celebrity gossip who suggests he knows something about María but won’t say what it is. She must try to find out what he knows and Juan goes into the working-class quarters of Madrid attempting to find out if the dead man’s family know anything following the police investigation of the death.
The introduction to the film pointed out that 1955 in Spain was marked by student protests in the universities (and by a meeting of filmmakers at Salamanca University) and such scenes occur in this film since Juan is a junior university teacher – a post he has because his brother-in-law is the university dean. What follows the opening accident is a narrative structured something like a neo-realist film. In an attempt to prevent their guilt becoming known, Juan and María undergo several ‘trials’ and humiliations – much like Antonio in Bicycle Thieves. In the process we learn more about the couple (though mostly more about Juan, primarily a ‘good man’ who has been a moral coward). The real question is what exactly was Bardem trying to say? How did he think his film would be seen as oppositional? Did he win his game of cat and mouse with the censor?
One argument is that the film is mainly concerned with exposing the lack of conscience of the middle classes and the ways in which they can easily ignore the sufferings of the poor – as well as the criticisms of the young. Bardem emphasise this by juxtaposing very different styles, e.g. the neo-realism of Juan’s visit to the home of the cyclist and the expressionist camerawork and low key lighting of scenes in night clubs and when Juan and María meet. Bardem had attended the first Spanish film school started in 1947. This was where he met Berlanga. Bardem was also self-taught in terms of his knowledge of Soviet Cinema and this is evident in one startling cut when the drunken gossiper throws a bottle at wedding and the edit reveals a broken window at the university where Juan is in trouble. The melodrama of Juan’s downfall is heightened by the symbolic shattered glass through which we see him.
Juan’s conscience and his ‘re-discovery’ of himself is at the heart of the narrative. He seems ill at ease with how his life has worked out but also thinks he has disappointed his mother – an important figure in the Spanish wealthy classes. There is a problem with some of the aspects of Juan’s story. He implies that he and María were teenage lovers during the war, but Lucia Bosè is far too young to be a thirty-plus María in 1955 (even if the ‘war’ is defined as including the fascists’ campaign against Republican guerillas that continued after 1939). I’m slightly puzzled by Juan and how Bardem uses him as the protagonist. He seems to be a weak man, easily led by María but not a fascist hero. The argument is that he is in some ways a ‘traitor’ to the class cause because he allows his conscience to trouble him! I’m also surprised the censors allowed the extensive footage of student protest. Overall, I didn’t get the same sense of a clear satire or anti-fascist allegory that I’ve found in the work of Carlos Saura. Rob Stone in his 2002 book on Spanish Cinema (Longman) suggests that Bardem’s juxtaposition of styles stripped away the sentimentality of neo-realism and allowed it to strengthen the impact of the melodrama (which in a Hollywood film would be purely ‘personal’ in its use of moral or social problems but which here points to the moral bankruptcy of a social class)(pp 48-9). Stone also points towards the use of deep focus (a feature of the long shot/long take approach in Rossellini’s neo-realist films) which enables Bardem to focus on Juan, but also to show the world around him – a world suffering under the impact of fascism.
I guess this discussion of melodrama points us towards Sirk and Fassbinder and their uses of melodrama as a means of subversion. I think I’d need another viewing to fully take on board Stone’s argument but I was certainly impressed by the melodrama/noir that is Muerte de un ciclista.
A detailed analysis of the film by Marsha Kinder (which expands Stone’s analysis) is available on the Criterion website.