I’ll admit straight away that I know nothing about cycling, but I’m a lover of the sports documentary. When We Were Kings brought boxing to life for me, and Senna made me see that there can be staggering bravery in motor racing. The great sports documentary makes newcomers appreciate what’s amazing about that endeavour to push the body to its limits. The not-so-great sports documentary is for the lovers of the sport alone.
But I finished watching Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist and felt as if I hadn’t seen a traditional sports documentary at all, because the love of the sport didn’t come across to me as a pure and clear motive for its making. Muhammad Ali, as an example, is already well established as an iconic, untouchable figure in When We Were Kings. It’s easy to celebrate him. Pantani is a very different character. An astonishing sportsman, he won both the Tour De France and the Giro D’Italia in 1998 and died alone, only six years later, from cocaine poisoning. Known and loved in Italy as Il Pirata (the pirate) because of his bandana and earring, he was the figurehead of professional cycling at a time when doping became a huge issue, and he fell from grace for possible drug use in a very public fashion. So it’s hard to watch this film about his life and feel that he embodies a sheer love of cycling.
The film starts strongly by juxtaposing the pin-sharp images of mountains with the grainier footage of the Tour De France – cycling is a battle against those mountains, and the sheer physical endurance it requires comes across. Alongside that we learn about Pantani’s childhood. He was a boy who loved his bike, and hearing his friends and family speak about him brings home how much he defined himself as a cyclist above all else. The sport demands everything, and he gives it, until he becomes a celebrity. Pantani was not a photogenic or a charismatic figure in a traditional sense, and the shots of him dancing awkwardly at a disco or revealing his new girlfriend in front of hundreds of journalists feel very revealing. He seems uncomfortable with the demands that went around being a public figure; the only times at which he looks at ease are on his bike.
That’s where the final strand of writer/director James Erskine’s film comes into play. The widespread use of drugs, particularly EPO, gets examined closely, and a culture is revealed that chews up and spits out athletes for the sake of sponsorship deals. Here the film loses its focus on Pantani, and it never is actually able to say whether he fell victim to certain pressures or not. This aspect is handled economically and without enough clarity, I felt. Also I could have done with less slow motion imagery of wheels and pedals turning, which felt as if a tragic end to great talent was edging towards being expressed as a melodrama.
So I think there’s a confusion at the heart of the film about how to present Pantani. If the title of the film is taken from the play by Dario Fo, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, then that suggests blame is being shrugged off by many people for the part they played in an innocent man’s death. But his family appeared to have supported him and tried to help him. His colleagues (apart from a really interesting spat with Lance Armstrong that doesn’t get a lot of screen time) all recognised his talent and aided him in his desire to win. If doping is endemic in cycling then we have somewhere to point a finger. It’s a shame the film isn’t able to make a strong statement about that issue. In the end, Pantani’s fall from grace remains murky, far from illuminated, and very, very sad.
It is, at times, a beautiful documentary, and I certainly feel I know something more about cycling than I did before. I remember after watching When We Were Kings I went to the gym and had a go at hitting a punchbag. I wanted to know what it felt like to be a boxer. After watching Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist I really didn’t want to get on a bike. Instead those beautiful mountain shots made me feel as if I’d like to try climbing instead – or any sport that you can do without such outside pressure. If the sport of cycling really is utterly corrupt then there’s still room for an incredible film on the subject. I don’t know how that can be reconciled with the fact that there are obviously sportsmen involved in it who feel they were born to be great cyclists. Pantani’s auspicious beginning and his lonely end seem to belong in two different stories; maybe that’s the real tragedy.
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