Saturday, April 30, 2011
The Cyclist. (1987) Mohsen Makhmalbaf
As soon as you pop in KINO's "Kimstim" DVD of The Cyclist, you get a warbled sound on the Menu, not unlike an old warped vinyl record, needle dragging across the lines on a turntable where the music feels not only dated but like it needs a shot of Pepto Bismol. I first saw this film on one of the most beat up VHS tapes one can encounter, from the barely discernible exterior title to the scratched and mangled tape inside, so this was a perfect way to revisit the film, which I recently did, and once again I was enthralled.
The Cyclist, a 79 minute Iranian film from 1987, is Makhmalbaf's retelling of an event he witnessed in childhood, but while the story is personal he also opts for it to be told in a social and somewhat political manner. It's about an Afghan refugee named Nasim, whose wife is dying and needs an extended stay in the hospital. A former bicycling champion in his home country, Nasim is now broke and has to figure out a way to pay for her health care. The work he is doing barely pays the bills they already have. He meets a gangster type who makes a living placing bets. He urges the desperate Nasim to involve himself in a wager that he can ride his bike for seven days straight. The event will be promoted for all to see.
The film didn't make the cut on our Top 100 for this year, but placed at number 50 on our list from 2010. After recently seeing Certified Copy (which I blogged Here) and hearing quite a bit of discussion about Close-Up over the years at A&F (a film which is partially based on The Cyclist and holds its position on our current list), I decided to revisit The Cyclist before diving into and blogging Close-Up, which I'll be aiming to write about tomorrow. The former is generally known as paving the way for the latter, Close-Up being the critically recognized film. What I had forgotten is what a great movie The Cyclist still is.
The film is a love story at heart. It's about the lengths Nasim goes to in order to save the spouse he loves. It is a hyper-expressionist film that in some ways hearkens back to the best of Murnau - the passion dramatically expressed in silent cinema is very similar to the feel of The Cyclist. The cinematography is also excellent as it captures all the drama on display, the drama being the hope-filled enjoyable kind. Elements of the downtrodden are certainly present, but the story itself is exciting and just plain fun.
Watching Nasim as he bicycles to save his wife's life, watching him sweat and nearly fall, watching him evade people and objects thrown in his path, in a state somewhere between utter exhaustion and the dream state of a fever, is a one man sporting event akin to the 15 rounds of boxing in the original Rocky. A big difference being that the "punches" here are mental and emotional, as well as physical, as he rides round and round in circles. His thoughts race back to his love in a hospital bed, his heart aches to save her and he knows this is the only way.
The crowds show up, growing exponentially each day. Tickets are sold. The gamblers and the feel of crime is a constant shadow over the event. Government officials see the display as a kind of threat. Vendors and palm readers and an ambulance are just within reach... Nasim splashes buckets of water on his face to keep from falling asleep and falling off his bike. Riots break out around him, nearly knocking him over as he bikes through a crowd of angry protesters. There is a referee constantly present, and many gambling over the event. Cheating with attempts to knock him off the bike becomes normal life for Nasim to deal with.
He eats on the bike. He drinks on the bike. He pees on the bike. He carries his son on the bike. He yawns and falls asleep and is awakened by the crowd on his bike. He even takes a phone call on his bike. He grows faint and his vision goes blurry; he thinks of his wife and saves himself from total collapse. He sweats and weeps and gets a cold and freezes at night. All of these things he does on his bike. He dreams that he's asleep while still awake and riding his bike.
Amidst the crowd of money-grubbing vendors and gamblers and those just there to be entertained, there are quite a few acts of friendship and kindness toward Nasim. There are acts of grace that is the kind of charm Iranian cinema is known for. And the final act is spectacular. This is a film that carries its weight in hope.
The soundtrack of the DVD is a little warbly, but not as warbly as the Menu might lead you to believe, and I think it actually adds to the charm of the tale. The transfer ain't so great but absolutely worth wading through for the story itself. This is a film where story transcends form, that is, the form of the transfer and not the film itself.
As more and more Americans find it difficult to navigate the health care system, and as employment continues to be replaced by uninsured jobs for the "temp" worker, this film becomes more relevant than it was at the time of its release. The lengths one goes to in finding a job and getting insured, or what one would do to save a loved one whose health is jeopardized by inflated health care costs, are issues of greater prevalence every day. America in 1987 wasn't nearly as close to Iran in 1987 as is the 2011 version of the American dream.