by Dan Schneider

Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s 1987 picture The Cyclist (Bicycleran) is one of those odd little films (a mere 78 minutes in length) that, technically, is not that impressive, but whose narrative makes it worth watching. Makhmalbaf wrote and directed the film, and also may have edited it. Its technical merits are few, save for the spare screenplay. There are, however, no greatly structured scenes, no effects of any note, and the most interesting shots are those of the lead character on his bicycle and another character riding a motorbike around and around in a pit.

Yet, both of these shots are emblematic of the film’s attack on human nature. The Cyclist is a polemical film, a political one, but one which succeeds because it does not make those things primary to its nature. The tale follows a middle-aged Afghan refugee, Nasim (Moharram Zaynalzadeh), in a small Iranian town. His wife, called Boo-Boo, is deathly ill and he needs to pay her bills at the local hospital. The utter corruption of the petty bank officials, even in the midst of the reform attitude of the Iranian Revolution, shows how most rotten hegemonies only fall to succeeding ones. Often, the viewer sees that much of the local economy is controlled by thieves, con men, and gangsters in Western suits.

Nasim, a former biking champion, is soon persuaded by his son Jameh (Esmail Soltanian), and a friend, to pedal a bicycle for a week straight to get his wife’s bills paid. This after a suicide attempt, and being beaten for it by locals, and after trying to get involved in a smuggling scam. Why does he sink to such depths? Because the hospital officials are so corrupt and unfeeling that they will toss Boo-Boo out, and even cut off medicine and oxygen, if he cannot pay each day for her. So, he has no choice, and ends up a part of a local contest of wills between public officials and gangsters who bet on whether he can succeed or fail, replete with a referee to keep track of his progress through the night, as Nasim spends his first three days just circling about a lone square. Far more interesting than Nasim is the reactions of the grotesque townfolk who cheer and jeer him, and pay increasing fees, each day, to do so. Even more telling is that the gangsters bribe doctors (who will only look after Boo-Boo with money up front) to dope Nasim one way or another, forcing him to urinate and defecate on the bike.

In a sense, this film resembles Tod Browning’s classic film Freaks, except that the camera is not looking in at the center of the attraction, but out on the crowd. The fact that they are even scarier than the real freaks of the earlier film, while unsurprising, shows how well an artist can critique something implicitly, and not get his work censored in an authoritarian society, for the people who gawk at Nasim (referred to as Breeze by his shady promoter) are really the mullahs who want to know every detail of a person’s life in an Islamist society. This is made almost explicit when some throw tacks in the path of Nasim’s bike, to puncture his tires, only to have his promoters kidnap and steal another biker’s bike, and switch Nasim off on it while they repair his tires. Furthermore, despite the claims of Islam being a leavening force in the lives of its adherents, this film shows just how nationalistic the Iranians are, and how much bias they hold toward outsiders. In the third night, Nasim falls off the bike, and his friend rides for a few hours as he sleeps. The referee and others are none the wiser, but how they made the second switch to get the real Nasim back on the bike is never explained. Yet we see the poor man suffer blazing heat in the day and frigid temperatures at night. When water is thrown on him it boils off of his scalp. He even uses small pieces of wood to keep his eyes open.

The other film which this one resembles is, to unsurprisingly, the great Italian neorealist classic, The Bicycle Thief, by Vittorio De Sica. There, too, we see the depths to which a poor man will sink, all regarding a bicycle which is stolen from him, and one which he desperately needs for employment. In the latter film, however, Nasim becomes not merely the bicycle, not merely the cyclist of the film’s title, but the very motion. And in doing so, he provides the most damning metaphor of life in such a society- that the individual worth of a person is subsumed by their mere material actions. Beliefs, dreams, ideals, ideas, all mean naught. One sees this even in a minor subplot about one of the ruthless doctors’ nurses, who feels badly about Nasim’s exploitation, but who, like her boss, is all talk and no action. The other thing that separates The Cyclist from The Bicycle Thief is that the Iranian film exploits grotesqueries to enhance subjective feelings in the viewer. De Sica’s film maintains a distant documentary feel throughout.

The acting is nothing noteworthy, because all involved were likely amateurs. And, again, the camerawork by cinematographer Ali Reza Zarin Dast, is nothing special; even the occasional quick cuts look more the works of error than planning. But, in this, Makhmalbaf’s sixth film in a long career, one can discern that he’s likely to be a more daring filmmaker than his main filmic rival in Iran, Abbas Kiarostami.

The DVD, put out by Image Entertainment, is of solid video quality, although the audio leaves much to be desired in places. It has no English language dubbing, and only white subtitles (against the color background), for only 85% or so of the dialogue. Oftentimes this is the result of a bad job by the producers of the film, but, given the low budget feel of The Cyclist, it could just as well be that the translators found much of the banter between minor characters, and moments of byplay simply were not worth the time and effort, artistically nor financially. That’s a shame, because some of the more revelatory moments in film come from the sotto voce moments between characters. There are no special features whatsoever. And, while I mentioned the audio quality being bad, that is something that may be the fault of the DVD company. What is the fault of Majid Entezami, who did the soundtrack, is the bizarre usage of musical interludes, often at inappropriate places, and often with music that is more Indian than Persian.

Yet, despite its flaws, The Cyclist is a film worth watching again. Sometimes the rawest of art forms can strike deeply into the percipient, not so much for the brilliance of its polish and skill, but just for the strength of its plunge, and the sharpness of its edge. This is one of those films. It is not great cinema, technically nor purely, but it is a worthwhile piece of art that distills the pros and cons of humanity in a universal way, as well as detailing the hues of those pros and cons to a specific place and time. If more films and artworks did so, in a similar manner, both art and politics would benefit. As it is, only the audience of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s film benefits. Good for them, and better for Nasim, and all those like him, who rarely get to see films, much less be the stars of them.

©2009 Dan Schneider