Sunday, June 05, 2011

BFF ’11: The Athlete

Abebe Bikila scored yet another first for his country when his cinematic life story became the first Ethiopian film submitted for best foreign language Academy Award consideration last year, thirty seven years after his death. An iconic Olympic medalist, Bikila’s short but remarkable life is stirringly dramatized in Davey Frankel & Rasselas Lakew’s The Athlete (trailer here), which screens during the 2011 Brooklyn Film Festival.

The significance of an Ethiopian winning the marathon (barefoot, no less) at the 1960 Rome Games was hard to miss. Bikila’s gold was the first won by an Olympian from both his country and the entire continent of Africa. Four years later, he became the first athlete from anywhere to win back-to-back marathon gold. However, the 1968 games in Mexico were considered something of a debacle for Bikila. Then disaster truly struck.

Throughout Athlete, the audience sees Bikila’s triumphs in flashbacks, while watching the Olympian deal with the tribulations of 1969. At first, it just seems to be the case of an athlete struggling to come to terms with the impending end of his career. Unfortunately, an auto accident renders Bikila quadriplegic. While treatment in Britain restored the use of his arms, Bikila clearly would never run another marathon. Yet, he would indeed find other outlets for his competitive drive.

Athlete follows sports movie conventions up to a point, but it presents a particularly complex and intriguing coach-and-athlete relationship. A Finnish expat by way of Sweden, Onni Niskanen was once active in the Finnish resistance to the Soviet invasion. Arguably, Athlete offers more back-story for Niskanen (altering it a bit for dramatic purposes) than for Bikila. Yet, this is rather by design, to emphasize the solitary nature of the Ethiopian long distance runner.

Though he is not exactly a dead ringer for the Bikila we see in the Olympic broadcast video (nicely integrated by co-editors Frankel and Matt Mayer), co-director Lakew is appropriately intense as the titular athlete. In a finely tuned performance, Swedish character actor Dag Malmberg brings a genuinely human dimension to Niskanen. Likewise, Ruta Gedmintas (lately seen in The Borgias) has some surprisingly memorable moments as his English nurse Charlotte.

Though Athlete’s conclusion is unabashedly manipulative, it is also well executed, so even cynical audiences will find themselves caught up in the swelling sentiment. Frankly, this is how sports movies are supposed to work. A real crowd pleaser (wrapping-up well before the horrors of the Marxist Mengistu regime), Athlete screens again during BFF next Sunday (6/12) at the Brooklyn Height Cinema.