Melodrama is a fickle beast. When done right, it can elevate a film into an overwhelming and moving experience. If done incorrectly, it’s abusive, overwhelming and stifling, drowning the audience in a sea of sappiness and sentimentality. The Cyclist sadly falls into the latter category, a film with such an excessive and explicit style that its melodramatic tone only cheapens its pathos.
Nasim (Moharram Zaynalzadeh), a prize winning cyclist, finds himself desperately scrounging for money when his wife takes ill and the hospital begins to pressure him to pay for money or risk his wife not getting the proper treatment. After searching in vain for a job, a showman (Esmail Soltanian) proposes an arrangement: if Nasim rides a bicycle for an entire week, the showman will pay his wife’s medical bills.
This extraordinary setup crafts the film as a critique of entertainment in a broad sense. Those who have the time prey on the misfortune of those who have desperate needs. These people will risk their life, wellbeing, even their sanity in order to make money. While it presents him an opportunity to save his wife, the means to get it make him a spectacle for every prying eye in the town.
On top of this, the film works as a political commentary. Nasim is an Afghan immigrant and the Iranian government fears his feat is some sort of elaborate trick. Their attempts to shut down his cycling speak to the irrational paranoia they have towards any immigrants. Likewise, the fact Nasim is an immigrant is a large part of why he must take up this physically taxing spectacle in order to raise the money.
While the thematic richness of the film broaches a number of ideologies, they are overwhelmed by the excessive style. The most poorly chosen stylistic feature is the overbearing music, abrasive, sappy and often mixed to pummel the audience’s ears into feeling the particular moment of a scene. It’s a hackney grasp for audience pathos, one that creates a dissonance because what is seen is much more subtle than what is heard.
The overreliance on music to convey emotions shows a failure to trust the actors and the story to draw the audience in. Without a single note of music, this film could do a much better job of getting the audience to empathize with Nasim. They don’t need to be told his tale is tragic, his situation and the way the story is contextualized demonstrates his tragedy far better than the music does.
Also, the film has a number of abrasive montages that involve intercutting footage of Nasim cycling with shots of his wife in the hospital. While the tone gives this feverish, high-pitched emotionality, the cutting is brutal: a sledgehammer effect slamming the images together in such a way that it quickly becomes over-the-top and repulsive.
At its core, The Cyclist contains a beautiful, tragic and provoking story, but the style of the film ruins almost everything it has going for it. It has all the elements of being great, but the style used to spice things up make the film too potent and ultimately pungent. What should be a great film ends up being a mediocre effort, which is The Cyclist’s greatest tragedy.
© 2012 James Blake Ewing