Sunday, April 28, 2013

THE CYCLIST (Bicycleran, 1987)

Introducing the great Nasim! The name means a breeze but he comes on like a storm! He's the man who stopped a train in India by staring at it! Who picked up two bulls in Pakistan with one finger! Actually, as Mohsem Makhmalbaf explains, he's a poor Afghan refugee in Iran desperate to raise money for his sick wife's hospital treatment. In his position there aren't many options. Makhmalbaf claims that the man's stunt -- seven days riding a bicycle non-stop in a public square hastily transformed into a mini-circus -- is based on a real event he saw as a youth. He also openly acknowledges his debt to the American movie They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, showing a dubbed clip from the picture on a local TV set. There may also be a less obvious debt to Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri, given that Nasim's earlier attempt to raise money is a kind of suicide bluff. He's seen an old beggar put himself under the wheels of an idle truck, expecting to be noticed before it starts. The bum takes a bit of a beating but also gets some money for his trouble. Nasim just gets the beating. A more promising inspiration is the motorcycle stuntman who entertains crowds daily riding the walls of his dugout velodrome. In one of the movie's most impressive shots we see a spectator holding out paper money as the motorcyle man races around the walls, parallel to the ground, trying at every lap to snatch the money. He manages it but wipes out soon afterward. Nasim does nothing so dangerous, but his is a taxing endurance test, and one confused observer asks at his venue whether this is the place where someone's going to kill himself.

There's something half-neorealist, half-Capraesque about Bicycleran as Nasim's stunt becomes an international controversy calling attention to the plight of jobless Afghan refugees in Iran. Different forces exert pressure to stop the stunt or draw crowds away -- employment agencies raise the daily wage offered to Afghan laborers from day to day -- while shadier characters wager on whether Nasim will finish and try to influence the result with firecrackers, nails under his tires, drugs, etc. In fact, he doesn't quite finish -- he collapses one night while the official observer is dozing off and an hooded ally takes his place for a while -- and finally doesn't quite know when to finish. In a bleak finish, the race seems to have obliterated Nasim's personality, while his original motive for the stunt has been rendered moot.

Bicycleran is most Capraesque in its melodramatic episodes when villains try to sabotage the stunt and in its elevation of Nasim into an Afghan-Iranian cinderella man, and is perhaps more evocatively than actually neorealist, insofar as neorealism as a cinematic movement had much to do with poor people and bicycles. But in a land where dance contests are probably illegal, Makhmalbaf has succeeded, for what it's worth, in translating the mock-epic despair of They Shoot Horses into an Iranian idiom. He also succeeded in making an often visually striking picture on an obviously limited budget. All the laps around tracks succeed as spectacle and symbol, and while this isn't exactly one of the great Iranian character studies, Makhmalbaf again proves that Iran's filmmakers, however disrespected by the clerico-political elite, are the country's best ambassadors, simply by portraying it, warts and all, as a modern nation of human beings.

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