This jumbled biopic of tragic Ethiopian long-distance runner, Abebe Bikila, has heart a-plenty.
Clearly released as a cinematic amuse bouche aimed squarely at those excited souls who are clawing their own eyeballs out in anticipation of the 2012 London Olympics, The Athlete is a bizarre but heartfelt cut-and-shunt biopic of famed Ethiopian long-distance runner, Abebe Bikila, which offers a stirring lesson in how not to combine fiction and documentary in the same film.
As a two-time Olympic champion and Zen-like galvanizer of a nation, Bikila is beautifully played by the film's co-director Rasselas Lakew who expertly channels the athlete's bitter fall from grace. The bare-footed legs that had carried him to so many victories are rendered useless after a car crash, and the film sets out to juxtapose Bikila's anguish at not being able to run any more against his desire to find exciting new ways to use the remaining working parts of his body (archery, sledding, etc).
Occasionally prone to mawkish overstatement, Frankel and Lakew's direction of the fiction elements is nevertheless impressive, especially the experiential camera motif that captures what it's like to move swiftly, silently down a road or a track. They also give an interesting sense of place, notably in the early scenes where Bikila's long drive back to his family home is beset with harbingers of doom.
A scene in which a rogue balloon bouncing in the road takes us to a backwoods soiree where a family are dancing to local music may initially seem superfluous to the story, but adds rich colour to the film as whole.
The problem is the archive footage, which is all great and suitably rousing, but it just doesn't seem to fit properly with the fictional drama. You feel that Bikila's admittedly amazing story would've been better transmitted through straight documentary or straight drama, not an uneasy bowlderisation of both.
An Olympics cash-in or a happy coincidence? Hmm...
It's a little all over the shop both stylistically and narratively, but there are a few astonishing moments.
Abebe Bikila maybe deserved something a little better, but this is decent enough for the time being.