When I think about Iranian cinema, my mind goes immediately to Kiarostami and Close-Up. Of course, that ignores not only dozens of other exceptional pieces of work from his talented countrymen, but also the film and filmmaker that made Close-Up possible: Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The Cyclist.
That’s because, as you probably know by now, Close-Up is a piece of documentary fiction that tells the story of a man who impersonated Makhmalbaf shortly after The Cyclist landed and became a domestic cultural milestone.
To understand The Cyclist and the conditions surrounding this impersonation, one must then zoom out even further on the political changes that swept across this country over the preceding decade.
Remember the cartoon at the beginning of Argo? Yeah, I didn’t think so, but it explains the extremely complicated politics of the decade or so preceding modern Iran’s defining moment when the country’s more religious and conservative faction fought for power AND her people sought basic rights and freedoms that went ignored for decades under the weak, wasteful, and faux-democratic rule of its Shahs.
This distinction is important because while we think generally think of post-revolution Iran as a geo-political antagonist, the socio-economic conditions for its working class were brutal with little to no hope on the horizon.
All this took place during the late 1970s, which was just a decade before the two films in question were produced and released. During this period, Iranian cinema was thriving, but many of the trademarks we associate with it today—a focus on ordinary people and the hardships described above—didn’t come until the Ayatollah Khomeini assumed power.
Why? It appears that he loved a little movie called The Cow. Before he viewed it by chance on television, his loyalists were burning many theaters to the ground because they saw them as a sign of the immoral West. The Cow—a social-realist film that was ten years old at the time Khomeini saw it—made him rethink this stance. He thought the right films—ones that were simple and adhered to his strict moral code—were instructive and, in fact, he encouraged production heading into the 1980s, going so far as to establish a Young Iranian Film Institute, which trained thousands [yes, thousands] of new Iranian filmmakers to create art that conformed to this style. The country’s established auteurs from the 1970s and earlier—Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf chief among them—adapted, as well.
Not a year after Khomeini’s Iran ended diplomatic ties with the United States—hello again, Argo—it found itself at war with its neighbor, another familiar American antagonist, Iraq.
They fought over borders, but also because Iraq saw the successful revolution next door as a threat and invaded with the hopes of winning quickly and decisively while Iran’s assumed post-revolution chaos rendered them ineffective. That obviously didn’t happen, but the long-lasting conflict had two big impacts on the film industry.
First, it pushed courageous filmmakers to challenge the status quo that was the government’s censors. They wanted films to glorify this conflict, but not every director played along. Those who didn’t were rewarded with extensive, sometimes indefinite delays on the release of their pictures. As the years ticked on and the war ended, this rebellious streak among the country’s best and most daring artists was met with even fiercer opposition and stricter punishments. That’s how we ended up with Jafar Panahi smuggling an iPhone-filmed movie into the Cannes Film Festival inside a birthday cake in 2011.
Secondly, it again pushed a weary populace to its breaking point. Words can’t describe the atrocities committed during this conflict, primarily by the defensive Iraqis toward the war’s conclusion. Chemical weapons were used, and in all, about a million combined soldiers and civilians were killed between both countries. Before it was over, this became the longest war of the 20th century, lasting nearly eight years.
Conditions, then, were ripe for the right film to come along and uplift the people, even just a little bit. Enter The Cyclist.
The Cyclist and Makhmalbaf
Released in 1987, The Cyclist tells the story of an Afghan refugee living in Iran named Nasim [Moharram Zaynalzadeh]. His wife is very sick, and as a laborer, he doesn’t make enough to pay for her care, so he’s hired to perform a stunt in the town square. If he can ride his bike without stopping for seven days and nights, he will make enough to help her.
The film’s description recalls de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves on a basic level, but it’s more ambitious in terms of symbolism and visuals than that. Nasim rides his bike in a small circle, and because it’s such a physically and emotionally brutal exercise, it suggests something about his country’s never-ending inability to truly care for its people. The setting and tragedy of its protagonist also recall nothing short of Jesus’ crucifixion.
And Makhmalbaf, who’s actually only making his third film here, directs it with the confidence of someone with significantly more experience. We feel Nasim’s delirium as the director toys with perspective, and while he occasionally drifts away from this main thread in less interesting directions, the overall arc of the story is extremely compelling.
It’s also important to know a bit about Makhmalbaf himself and why his identity was ripe for the claiming. As a pre-revolution teenager, Makhmalbaf attempted to stab a soldier during an anti-Shah protest and was sentenced to death. This sentence was never carried out, of course, and he was released from prison by the new government after serving five years.
He mostly retreated to his work during the 1980s, and by the time The Cyclist came out—without much trouble from the government, at least as far as I can tell—he was a fairly obscure face. Enter Ali Sabzian and, eventually, Abbas Kiarostami’s camera.
Makhmalbaf’s non-political streak lasted until the Green Revolution of 2009, when he came out strongly in favor of reform, and like so many of Iran’s artists, he’s considered persona non grata by the government, but he remains as prolific as ever.