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The Cyclist

The Cyclist
1987 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 79 95 min. / Bicycleran, Docharkheh Savar / Street Date November 23, 2004 / 29.99
Starring Firouz Kiani, Samira Makhmalbaf, Mohammad Reza Maleki, Esmail Soltanian, Moharram Zaynalzadeh
Cinematography Ali Reza Zarrindast
Original Music Madjid Entezami
Written and Directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf

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 corrupt officials.


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 trick is 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:
Movie: Good
Video: Good
Sound: Good
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

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