I'll help you out, and share my review of the Cyclist.
The path to appreciating Iranian film can be a long one. Few people truly appreciate the films from this troubled country at first. Various critics and know-it-alls who claim the Iranian New Wave to be vital turn us onto it. Yet, after one or two films, even the best of them, we are less than convinced. The films are slow, and nothing really happens in any of them. We cant adequately judge the films, because they stand unique in the history of film. There is no already established criterion by which to judge these films, and therefore the films become challenging in a whole new way. We not only dont know what to expect of them, but even if we like or dislike a particular film.
The motto of the Iranian film movement should be just one word, patience. All of the films try our patience, and they require us to bear with it. You wont get melodrama, attractive actors, action, or even laughs, but you do get something that makes their films worth their weight in gold. Iranian films make us think, and that is why we dislike them at first, but we grow to appreciate and love them. The Cyclist, an early triumph by director Mohsen Makhmalbaf is as vital as any film from the last twenty years, but you might want to wait before seeing it.
Iranian films get better with each successive film. Saying that this is the best of them all may be an obsolete statement by the time I see another Iranian film. Likewise, seeing this film first, may leave you disappointed, as nearly any introductory Iranian film will do. So lets take a look at exactly why this film is brilliant and (like the remainder of Iranian film) worth your time.
America does not get a good look at the Middle East. What we see are stereotypes, crazy leaders, religious fanatics, poor and abused people, and anything else that our government believes will help justify military involvement. The Cyclist was a film made when Iran was considered the enemy of the world. Back when the US policy was to give Iraq weapons and training to fight them, how quickly things change. It is not surprising that The Cyclist took more than a decade to find its way over to America. Why, because this film viewed Iranians as individuals, as people. Sure it is not a grand picture of the people, one that contradicts our notions of Arabians, but it is a human picture. How could the US show a film that viewed Iranians as hard working people, desperate for medical care, employment, and anything to take their minds off of their seemingly intolerable conditions?
The Cyclist is an overwhelming story of one such individual who goes through great lengths just to pay his wifes medical expenses. In order to raise money, he agrees to ride a bicycle around a circle for seven days straight, with no sleep. Whether or not he makes it doesnt seem to be the real story. Makhmalbaf is stressing what led him into the situation. Iran is a nation run by the few. It is also overburdened with Afghan immigrants, one of which is the cyclist. These Afghans get the worst from both sides here. They are exploited by the few in charge, digging for money that might not even keep them alive. In one scene a driver asks for two diggers for fifty a day (unfamiliar with the currency or equivalent), when nearly thirty men pile onto the truck, he still asks for just two diggers, this time at thirty.
Our cyclist is the one who gets the roughest treatment of all. Anyone who knows about sleep deprivation knows that it doesnt take long before insanity sets in. Somewhere around day three, the mind ceases to function properly. With seven days of not just being awake, but riding a bike, we are not surprised at the end of seven days when he continues to ride, oblivious to all around him praising his heroism.
The media is making him out to be a hero. They claim that they need more men like him, but the truth is they have plenty like him. He is a desperate man, willing to go to extreme measures, faking a suicide attempt to receive charity earlier in the film. We know he is not alone, because he got the idea watching someone else do it even earlier. He too is in line with the fifty Afghan diggers when the call goes out for just two. The people saying they need more men like him are a slap in the face. Their exploitation is only possible if there is a readily available work force, and one that accepts their exploitation.
What we see happen is hard to watch, and even a little hard to understand. Throughout the film people are trying to make him fail. Money is bet on each side whether or not he will last, several million (if that makes the previous monetary value in perspective). The government believes that he is setting an example for the Afghanistan immigrants, and they resort to having them dig miles away for inflated wages just to get rid of them. Throughout they try to drug him, sabotage his bike, and even the referee is bribed. Then at the end, the promoter takes the money, as well as any charity from the poor onlookers, runs off with plans to marry the palm reader. Our cyclist is still riding, delusional, without a penny more to his name, and a wife as sick as ever still in the hospital.
From a technical standpoint, we can certainly applaud the film. It is a well-actualized picture that has its subtle ways of evoking art. Makhmalbaf employs various camera angles to achieve some remarkable shots, particularly of the motorcyclist in his sideshow ride. He also employs non-temporal editing techniques, with a few flashbacks thrown in. Some things, like the contrasting motorcyclist, seem to be thrown in for arts sake. There are characters and elements that dont directly serve the story, but perhaps that is just another way we must use independent thought to assess their relativity.
Makhmalbaf chooses to end the film without a real resolution. This is the single greatest proponent of thought in the film. We dont have the option of knowing the story and the happily ever after epilogue. Instead we have an ambiguous ending where nothing is resolved. The seven-day ride is over, but it hasnt ended. The cyclist is a hero, but what is to become of his heroism. Will his wife be cared for, what about the money he was supposed to get? What of the other Afghans, surely their problems dont end with the conclusion of the ride. All of this makes us ponder exactly what the future holds for all involved. We know it is unstable, and since it isnt an American film, we shouldnt assume things will work out. What we are left with is a compelling, deeply felt, and brilliantly realized picture with a heavy humanist influence. Unlike Renoir or Kurosawa however, Makhmalbaf believes that human beings arent good at heart. Like those two however, he doest believe they are capable of extraordinary things.