Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Iranian export films tend to be socially committed and full of emotion, and the colorful The
Cyclist is no exception. The humble production uses the dilemma of one common man as an
opportunity to critique society at large as an unfeeling mass, easily manipulated by hype and
Iran. Nasim, an Afghan refugee (Moharram Zaynalzadeh) is distraught because his
wife is sick and the hospital demands money to keep her under care. Since his normal work digging
wells cannot possibly pay enough, Nasim falls into the scheme of a carnival huckster who promotes him
as a man who will ride a bicycle without stopping for seven days in a public spectacle. The little
show soon becomes a circus of its own, and the center of a little industry based on Nasim's suffering.
Vendors hawk wares to the crowd while a barker credits Nasim with miraculous feats and draws cheap
moral lessons from his ordeal. Meanwhile, the marathon becomes a larger issue as high wagers
lead to bribes, threats and attempts to drug Nasim or otherwise end his ride. The local governor
wonders if the spectacle is undermining local security, while Nasim tries to keep riding amid it all.
The Cyclist wastes little time in setting up its central crisis and skips full character
introductions. The desperate husband is defined entirely by his problem - how to get a lot of
money, quickly. He only has a couple of sentences of dialogue in the whole movie. When faced
with the impossible task of riding a bicycle nonstop for a week, his key response is to simply
admit that he doesn't have a choice.
Although we see the suffering wife in the hospital and watch the cyclist's son struggle to help him,
Nasim's plight quickly becomes a secondary subject for director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Promoted as
an Afghan Superman, the bearded cyclist dwindles under a circus of promotional lies not
unlike Sydney Pollack's They Shoot Horses, Don't They? or Billy Wilder's famous film noir
Ace In the Hole. Wilder's cynical melodrama charted the gathering of a vulture-like media
circus around a pathetic man trapped in a cave-in. With no other way of raising money, Nasim is
trapped in an equally impossible situation that must be a familiar reality for the majority of
Iranians. Poverty makes everyday survival into a desperate struggle.
A promoter of motorcycle stunts gets the idea of selling tickets to Nasim's marathon ride, which
in itself is no more elaborate than one man riding in circles around a fountain in a courtyard. The
in the presentation. Insistent barkers promote Nasim as a source of inspiration and community
pride; the audience is supposed to accept him as representative of their collective heroism. A
sizeable bazaar forms around the lonely man. His son tries to feed him as he rides, leaving his young
and unprotected daughter to attract the eyes of strangers. The promoter hires a doctor to minister to
Nasim's health, but when outside betting gets out of hand there are as many people trying to hinder
the cyclist as help him. Eventually the governor gets involved when rumors circulate that the show
is some kind of Afghan plot that might lead to a civil disturbance. Nasim circles ceaselessly, until the
original reason for his ride is lost to him as well.
With limited resources, The Cyclist displays an active visual imagination through fast
cutting and spinning shots to represent Nasim's hypnotic, absurd ride. Other touches are more
fanciful, such as his wife's vision of a 'heavenly' husband riding in the clouds outside her hospital
window. Emotionally speaking, the social satire keeps Nasim and his frantic family at arm's length,
even though we're touched by his young son's efforts to help him.
KimStim's DVD of The Cyclist is a rather good flat transfer, with passable colors and an
overall acceptable look. Some shots seemed cramped in composition, making it difficult to guess
what the original aspect ratio is supposed to be. The audio is very good, with Madjid Entezami's
percussive, wailing music effective in maintaining the film's strange mood. The English subtitles
are removable. Director Makhmalbaf explains in a short text extra that he once attended a similar
exhibition put on for charity. The doubting crowd couldn't decide if the show was a fake or
sincere. Fans of the director's better known film Kandaharmay want to
check out this interesting piece of social criticism.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Cyclist rates:
Supplements: Filmmaker text statement
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 18, 2004
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson