This image in the opening moments of “Death of a Cyclist” is so powerful for how perfectly it sets the viewer up for what’s to come, for what it represents thematically, and for the way it demonstrates how visual simplicity can highlight and heighten what always matters most: story. As we open, Juan and Maria are driving home on a country road at dusk, and they hit a cyclist. Juan gets out of the car and runs over to the cyclist to check on him and finds he is still alive. There is so much we learn here about these characters, like how Juan feels genuinely concerned for the wellbeing of the cyclist, while Maria feels concerned only for her own wellbeing. This reveal sets up their dynamic for the whole movie in a clever, yet subtle way, and sets up the personal stakes for each character.
This image does more than set up the characters, however, it also sets up the thematic exploration of the film. By keeping the cyclist just out of the frame, it sets up the game of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ the characters will attempt to play, which we all know ends with obsession of thought rather than freedom from thought. Things are always worse when we cannot see them, and letting our imagination run wild with what could happen always ends up worse than just accepting reality and facing consequences. In the image, Juan is right up in the face of this reality, while Maria stays lost back in the distance so she can avoid seeing it. It foreshadows clearly that Juan and Maria will always be pulled in two different directions based on their priorities and will struggle to stick together through this horrible situation.
Finally, this image shows the power of simplicity in visual storytelling. Nowadays, filmmakers have access to the most amazing equipment, the most amazing visual effects, and to mountains of money, so they are pretty unlimited in the visual and imagery they can put up on the big screen. However, this little black and white film from 1955, when none of those things existed, proves that sometimes what you don’t show and what you don’t see if more powerful than what you do show. They didn’t show the car hitting the cyclist, and they didn’t show the cyclist’s body. Obviously they could have done both, and with the limited resources of the time, it may have looked bad, or they may have done a wonderful job, but that doesn’t matter. The director knew that not showing it would be more unsettling for the audience, leaving us to imagine it. More importantly, he knew everything I already talked about, that it was the right visual choice for this particular story to subconsciously implant all the themes of the movie into the viewer’s mind right from the start. Film is a visual medium, and that is masterful visual storytelling from J.A. Bardem.
The reason I chose to focus a majority of this essay on one image from the beginning of the movie is because it really does tell you everything about the characters, about the visual style of the film, about the type of story to come, and about the director’s approach to telling that story. To my mind there is no need to talk in depth about other parts of the film to let you know what it is about or to explore the ideas that will be presented. And to me, as someone who admires and respects the power of visual storytelling above all else, there is no greater sign of a master filmmaker than being able to set up and encapsulate an entire story in one simple visual right at the start of a film. And I have talked many times about the importance of “show, don’t tell” in visual storytelling, but this film highlights the natural extension of that philosophy for a deeper level of visual storytelling, which is “imply, don’t show”.
The best way to explain both is to talk about the inverse method which many films use. It is so frustrating when a film uses character dialogue or voiceover narration to tell you everything that is happening, has happened, or is going to happen. It is a sign that the writer, director, or both do not trust the audience to follow the story so they spell everything out. It is also frustrating when a film doesn’t spell it out with words, but shows you every little bit of action and everything that happens and leaves nothing to the imagination. Viewers are smart enough to infer what might be happening out of frame if given proper context and visual cues, or through character action/emotion. Feeling the need to “tell” or to “show” everything in a film is not just a lack of trust in the audience, but also a lack of trust in the actors and the creative team behind the film, including a filmmaker possibly not trusting themselves. Ok, now let me step off of my soapbox for a second and say of course there is always a place for “showing” and “telling”, and it depends on what kind of film is being made, what are the goals of the filmmaker, and how creatively it is done. The point of my holy diatribe is just that it should not be done out of fear or laziness or lack of imagination, but out of thought and choice.
Let me wrap up this essay by getting back to the film in question, and briefly highlight a few more notable aspects of the film I really appreciated. There is some really standout editing at points that surprised me and felt innovative for the time period. There is one match cut for instance, where two male characters in love with the same woman are smoking in different locations at the same time, and the film cuts from a medium close up of one of the men blowing out smoke into the empty space out of frame to a medium close-up of the smoke of the other man’s cigarette being blow in the face of the woman. The shots and the cut are so perfect that it all appears to be one man in one place, and the ethereal movement of smoke across not only the screen but across space is just a beautiful example of the magic of cinema. The movie also touches on the political climate of Spain at the time, that is so relatable to today as well, highlighting the impact of wealth inequality not just on society, but on our conscience if we try to ignore, as we have. There could be a whole other essay just on that topic. It is a theme also contained in that opening image, as the victim is on a bicycle while Juan and Maria are in a car; and also we can see Juan and Maria and how fashionable and attractive they are, while the poor working class victim is kept out of view so as not to upset us.
Out of sight, out of mind.