A couple is traveling down a deserted road. All of a sudden they stop. The man gets out and the woman runs after him. They have just run over a cyclist. The wheels creep up on in the shot still spinning when the man leans down to check on the cyclist. He tells the woman that he is still alive, but the woman wants nothing to do with the accident and calls for the man to get in the car. He obeys and leaves the cyclist there to die. You wonder at this point why anyone would leave another human being alone in the middle of the road to die. What would motivate such an evil and selfish act?
You find out pretty quickly. These two people are having an affair. She is a wealthy and bored aristocrat and he is a stuck in the rut assistant professor. Before the war, these two people were engaged to be married, but she got cold feet and ran off with an older man who had tons of money. At first she seems to regret this decision, but as the film goes on you realize that she wants her cake and eat it too. She wants the devotion of both the insanely rich husband and the naughty ex-fiance. They are both stuck in her charming trap. The man, on the other hand, is the black sheep of his family. He still lives with his mother, he is just an assistant professor, and he seems to be incredibly lazy. It seems that the ex-fiance leaving him devastated his chances of a good life. He will do anything to have her back, even if that means sneaking around and leaving a hurt cyclist on the road to die. However after the act has happened, they seem to be feeling immense pressure on their relationship. She is worried that her affair with him is going to be found out and he is feeling guilty about what he did. The tension builds to a most disturbing end.
Mr. Bardem (not Javier, but rather his uncle) was jailed for this film. He was speaking out against the Franco aristocratic system in order to make sure the world at large was aware of the hypocrisy of the Franco regime. At one point in the film, Mr. Bardem shows a lavish wedding where the woman learns that her “friend” is blackmailing her. This is juxtaposed with the man visiting the slums of the cyclist. People are packed in like sardines, given no running water and forced to house huge families in single room apartments. At the wedding however, the men and women walk a vast villa in order to get from the wedding ceremony to the reception. The space is wide open, and completely uncluttered. While the rich can afford to have massive houses, tons of jewels and even a piano that doesn’t get paid, the workers of the land and the factories have to scrimp and save to just be able to live in a one bedroom apartment. This might seem trivial to you, but to someone who is trying his hardest to jab at Franco at every turn without getting caught, this is monumental. He took a seemingly melodramatic story and injected it with themes of corruption, poverty, rash decisions and excess that Spain was known for at the time.
This film is beautiful and complex. You can marvel in the exaggerated plot line, in the magnificent black and white cinematography and the shots that are influenced by Luis Bunuel. But in order to truly understand the film, you must the circumstances under which it was made. Doing a little bit of research online has led me to a deeper reading of a film I would normally have thrown away as being well done and over the top. There is a reason this film was a Cannes winner.