THE CYCLIST (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1987) and ELEPHANT (Alan Clarke, 1988)

These two films are failures for much the same reason. From Iran, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Bicycleran is reminiscent of the anti-American Depression-set Hollywood film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), while the British Elephant, Alan Clarke’s final film, plagiarizes the “relay” structure of Chantal Äkerman’s glorious Toute une nuit (1982), turning its vignettes of romantic couplings and departures into robotic encounters between killers and killed in Northern Ireland. Both films, one “busy,” the other spare, but both schematic and repetitive in the extreme, ultimately partake of the coldness and inhumanity they show and mean to dramatize.
     Like Horses, Makhmalbaf’s film focuses on humanity’s inhumanity. Nasim, an Afghan immigrant in Iran, must set aside his labor at digging wells in order to earn more money more quickly to pay for the contemporaneous hospital stay of his desperately sick wife. A champion bicyclist who once bicycled nonstop for three consecutive days, he agrees to do what he cannot possibly do, bicycle nonstop for an entire week. All sorts of nefarious people exploit his predicament and suffering, while others contrive to sabotage his success. He rides his bike in a circle, attracting a circus of attention; at one point at night, someone else, undetected, substitutes for a fallen Nasim, while in daylight his young son runs alongside repeatedly smacking Nasim in hopes of keeping him awake. Nasim wins the wager, by which time, however, he has absorbed the inhumanity of others and no longer cares about his wife’s condition.
     At perhaps its lowest point of cleverness, Elephant manipulates us into believing that a pair of victims are in fact the imminent assassins. Clarke lingers on his blasted victims, hoping that this gesture of underscoring their humanity will exonerate him of despicable filmmaking. It doesn’t.

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