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CYCLIST, THE (Bicycleran)(director/writer: Mohsen Makhmalbaf; cinematographer: Ali Reza Zarin Dast; music: Majid Entezami; cast: Moharram Zeynalzadeh (Nasim), Edmail Soltanian (Son), Mohamad Reza Maleki (Promoter); Runtime: 85; MPAA Rating: NR; Facets Video; 1987-Iran-in Farsi with English subtitles)
“This colorful film is more interested in delivering its message about how man makes man suffer, than it is in being dramatic.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Mohsen Makhmalbaf is considered one of the great filmmakers of modern Iran and has gained an international following, as he continually delivers unpredictable weighty films on various subjects. The Cyclist is one of his minor works that reminds one of Sydney Pollack’s 1969 “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”, his Depression era film. It’s a well-meaning work, which might be just enough of a reason to get it across the finish line, but it is done in too crude a fashion and remains too obscure.

The story literally revolves around a poor Afghan refugee named Nasim who is a well digger and itinerant worker but because he can’t make enough money honestly to pay for his seriously ill wife’s hospital bills, the hospital threatens to stop treatment unless paid. Therefore Nasim is forced to try several attempts at getting money dishonestly – by faking a suicide behind the wheels of a bus and by driving a truck for smugglers. Instead he reluctantly becomes a cyclist–something he did back in Afghanistan to great success, where he was a former marathon champion of a three day endurance bicycle event. He takes the offer of a sleazy businessman hustler promoter to go on a bicycle marathon in a circus-like atmosphere; Nasim alone is to go around in a circle of a small rink, located on a vacant lot, for seven days without sleeping, where he relieves himself in test tubes and is fed meals while riding and is looked after by his concerned son while he suffers the pains and agony of such a feat–riding hard during the day and shivering from the cold at night while staying awake as he props his eyes open with toothpicks. Others such as venders and bookies use him to make money off his sweat, while the promoter charges admission to spectators and Evangelical-like motivational speakers use him as an example to give the spectators false hope, as word of the event spreads andthe aged and the sick are bussed in and other Afghani immigrants flock to the sideshow encouraged to believe in miracles. Local officials are suspicious of the outsider and his motives, believing this endurance test may be a plot and Nasim a spy; they try to sabotage him as does a wealthy businessman who bets against him finishing the marathon. It all points to what does victory really mean if the human spirit cannot triumph, and what responsibility does the government have in putting on an honest show.

This colorful film is more interested in delivering its message about how ‘man makes man suffer,’ than it is in being dramatic–as its narrative is clumsily told. The film goes for big metaphorical truths and lacks intimacy, as it falls short of being more than an interesting look at modern Iran and its shortcomings in the post-revolution that still allows for greed and inhumanity despite all its promises to the contrary.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”