Film Review: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist

Thursday, 26 June 2014

You might know the story of Marco Pantani: an early sensation in the mountains and then injuries, race expulsions, humiliation, absence from the sport and then his lonely death in an out of season beach resort. But here’s a documentary film to tell the story? Does prior knowledge spoil the film? Not necessarily because it’s a well-told tale featuring archive footage alongside new interviews and narration from his family, journalists and peers.

We start with the myth of the mountains, the high altitude battle ground where riders fight gravity, their rivalries and sometimes struggle with themselves. We get early year photos and video of Pantani from the tale of a borrowed bike where he drops his friends when climbing over a bridge to amateur success where he drops an entire peloton. But behind the physical strength is the tale of mental fragility and off it goes through the professional success to his downfall and death.

Everything changes when he turns pro. Fun becomes work and Pantani warns his mother about the Mafia, not necessarily organised crime but organised sport, showbiz where what you see on stage is different from what’s backstage. Quite what this is is not spelt out immediately but in time we learn about the doping. The picture is astonishing, institutional doping across many teams and also “state doping” with the Italian authorities funding the likes of Professor Conconi who in turn was “preparing” many cyclists. As the 1998 Tour de France falls apart we see how Pantani helped lead the rider protests.
These protests are unimaginable now as riders howl about their privacy and implying a private entitlement to abuse EPO, despite the drug being closely restricted in France. Whatever your thoughts on the extent of doping in sport today it’s impossible to imagine cyclists acting like this today.

I’d heard about “dramatic reconstructions” in the film and feared lame attempts to remake scenes from a race. Pantani had a particular style and the more you watch, the more you look less at his legs and the more it seems related to his back and his core, as if he could lock his spine in place. Hard to replicate but fear not, there’s plenty of archive footage from the race, the scenes of cyclists in replica kit are large confined to the role of anonymous riders in replica kit and the most visible the “Pantani” actor get is a scene where he rides on the rollers in a hotel room in order to get the blood spinning. None of it detracts, this remains a documentary, not a drama. Still some clips are played and played again. Footage of a winding mountain road filmed by a camera strapped low to car is replayed to give a sense of motion in the mountains. As the sport’s doping problems are revealed a clip of spinning vials of blood pops up again and again, the centrifuge as a meme for subterfuge. At times it felt like this imagery was being repeated to pad out the video.

Open Ending
The sport’s endemic doping problem is set out, Pantani’s sense of shame and feelings of being a victim are presented and his ensuing isolation are all visible. This is a chain of events rather than the accidental death of a cyclist. But the film doesn’t end with any conclusions. Don’t watch this for a Michael Moore story where the Bad Guys are confronted and humiliated.

Based on the Book
Written, directed and produced by James Erskine the film is based on the book “The Death of Marco Pantani” by Matt Rendell, one of the film’s talking heads. Sometimes people ask “which is better, the book or the film?” when print and video versions of the same story are out. It can be a false choice but here the book is superior because of it’s detail, the print format allows for so much more detail and Rendell supplies facts like a machine gun supplies bullets. When reviewing the book I opened a page at random to count the facts and when Pantani is stopped for speeding on the autostrada we get the location of incident, that the police used a laser gun to measure the speed, the speed recorded, the local speed limit, the fine awarded and more.

The film is limited to 90 minutes so it can’t cover these details, in fact it skips many incidents. But that’s the fault of cinema and film rather than the direction. Still the format means the documentary can only touch on issues, for example the extent of Pantani’s popularity in Italy, the length of Pantani’s association with Prof. Conconi or the gradual withdrawal of Pantani from society; the film jumps from the end of his racing career to his death in one go. You’ll find much more in the book.

But the film has some bonuses the book doesn’t. Bradley Wiggins makes a few appearances as a talking head, his knowledge of cycling’s history is apparent (he’d make a great TV pundit one day) and there’s a lot of interview footage with Tonina Pantani, Marco’s mother. Plus there’s all the early year photos and video and the interviews with Pantani, a chance to hear his Romagnol voice and view.

Summary
Encapsulating a life in a 90 minute story is a hard task but this does cover the story of Marco Pantani’s from start to finish. If you’ve heard it all before this is the chance to see it, with archive videos, photos and interviews. It’s a documentary in the story-telling sense – Rendell’s book is the investigatory element – and well put together. A must see? Perhaps not if you’ve heard it all before and read the book but if you have it’s still easy to view and informative. If the story of Pantani is new then certainly worth looking up or downloading as a taster for the book.

The film is in cinemas this summer in the UK, US, Australia and Mexico and available on DVD and via Apple’s iTunes too. More info at pantanifilm.com

Note: this video was made available to watch online via the producers

Adi Gaskell June 26, 2014 at 3:47 pm

I’ve long been a fan of Pantani so went to see this film when it premiered. I’m not really sure what it’s aiming to be. As you say, it isn’t anywhere near as detailed as the book and so falls into the trap of not being much of anything.

The screening I went to had a Q&A with the director afterwards, and rather predictably the questions focused on doping, which rather overshadowed the fact that this was a story about cycling.

I suspect, or at least like to think, that most people became fans of Pantani for the way he rode his bike, and there isn’t really much meat in the sections of the film about his performances themselves. His breakthrough in the Giro is given scant attention, his record ascent of d’Huez little more. Even his double Giro/Tour win is only really touched on.

As a fan of Marco, I would have much preferred a movie to go into much more depth about him as a cyclist, and explore his style, his victories and so on. Everyone knows the other side of the story to death after all.

Bash June 26, 2014 at 3:58 pm

I was lucky enough to get tickets to a Q&A screening (might have been the premiere, I’m not sure) a month or so back.
I wasn’t bowled over by the film, to be honest – the first half was great, with the gripping archive footage and Pantani’s fascinating backstory. The second half, where the doping and downfall come into play, is far less successful. As you touch on, there’s no footage to illustrate the doping save for the centrifuge of blood vials, and the dramatised footage is just awful. Really felt like a Channel 5 attempt at a doco at that stage.
Also, and I can totally understand why considering how heartbroken his family and friends still are, but I felt that pressing questions were not really asked to the contributors who were closest to him… so though we appreciate the destruction of the man, we don’t really get to the bottom of how or why.
My final quibble is with how a lot of the archive was treated – that flashbulb still frame montage effect of the climbing footage. The director told us that he had Scorsese’s Raging Bull in mind, where that photo documentary technique worked because it was specifically shot for it. In Pantani, applying the same treatment to moto footage just isn’t the same. I’d have far rather seen it played out properly – the footage is so real and compelling on its own that it doesn’t need any treatment.
Anyway. First half good, second half so/so.

Lee Woodhead June 26, 2014 at 4:04 pm

I have read the book and found it thoroughly depressing as it destroyed all the myths & folklore surrounding who I thought, at the time, as a truly great cyclist. In the end he was exposed as the worst kind of cheat and a habitual one at that.

gabriele June 26, 2014 at 7:17 pm

Well, he was not the “worst” kind, that’s for sure. Whereas, feel assured, he was truly a great cyclist.

Larry T. June 26, 2014 at 5:36 pm

Dunno if I’ll bother with this film, but thanks anyway for the review. I thought Rendell’s book missed the WHY of Pantani’s continued popularity here in Italy. For some reason English-speakers seem only to focus on doping, the polemics with BigTex and The Pirate’s sad end.
Doped or not, Pantani climbed out of a hospital bed time after time to compete again. All the dope in the world can’t create that motivation. Coming back from misfortune after misfortune, few of which were in any way his fault, to fly again in the mountains and as the Italians say “Farci sognare” (make us dream) put Marco on the same pedestal where Fausto Coppi will always reside. I write this just after making our yearly pilgrimage to Il Campionissmo’s tomb. I look forward to paying similar respects at the Pantani memorial on the Passo Mortirolo in a few weeks. W Pirata! W Coppi!

gabriele June 26, 2014 at 7:22 pm

Yeah, I’ve got a strong feeling of “missing the point”, too. Just that which you’re stressing (moreover, Pantani’s personal and sporting story isn’t fitting so well with the idea of “mental fragility”), and maybe something more. But I’ve written a lot about this theme elsewhere in this blog, so I’ll try not to insist.

Mk June 27, 2014 at 11:50 am

Larry it actually really shows why they loved him. And loved him they did. Love him they still do. At last years worlds in Florence so many locals walked around in bandannas and pirate shirts. It was amazing

Ian Street June 26, 2014 at 7:33 pm

Saw the film last week and ‘enjoyed’ it, although not sure that’s quite the right word. Both the book and the film for me show a deeply troubled man trapped in the turmoil and corruption of a deeply troubling ‘sport’ at that time. As his mother says in the film, you send your children out to play sport because it is supposed to be fun, healthy not to send them to their death.

Nick R June 26, 2014 at 11:45 pm

“The accidental death of a cyclist” seems a very weak subtitle. Is it a translation? It’s like subtitling Senna with “the accidental death of a driver”.

Marty McC June 27, 2014 at 1:51 am

It is wordplay based on the Dario Fo play “Accidental Death of an Anarchist”- James Erskine, the director, said he saw similar themes (ie did he jump or was he pushed) between the plot of the play and Pantani’s life story.

The Inner Ring June 27, 2014 at 10:06 am

Yes.

Simon E July 3, 2014 at 4:06 pm

the Dario Fo connection and other things are discussed in Andy McGrath’s interview with director James Erskine for Rouleur magazine:

http://rouleur.cc/journal/riders/accidental-death-cyclist

Keith w armington June 27, 2014 at 1:41 am

He was like most others of his era. I can’t feel romantic about him. He cheated he got fucked up and he died a messy death. I know he looked good on a bike but that’s irrelevant. Like many rock stars he soared dived and died . Can’t we leave it at that . He was no messiah just a racing cyclist who took too many drugs

BarrySlinger June 27, 2014 at 9:03 am

Oh dear Keith, Pantani was so much more than “just a racing cyclist who took too many drugs” you clearly know nothing of bicycle racing from the 1990’s….

RocksRootsRoad July 1, 2014 at 2:00 pm

…where they all doped.

I don’t get the Pantani adulation thing and free to admit it. His swashbuckling nature was due to one thing – doping. So someone will have to sit down and explain it to me.

The book I have read and sure, it is anything but romantic. It lays out the cold facts and that for many, may be too much to bear.

TheEcho June 27, 2014 at 7:39 am

itunes is such raging pile of shit!

noel June 27, 2014 at 9:21 am

being a Johnny-come-lately, I wasn’t following cycling during Pantani’s heyday, but find it fascinating how he divides opinion so strongly, and it doesn’t appear to be along national, or even anglo-saxon vs continental lines. Perhaps folks who were following the sport during his career have a more balanced opinion now? Either way I loved the book and I’m really looking fwd to the footage in this film to help me understand the man a little better.

Anonymous June 27, 2014 at 10:10 am

Whenever I think Of Marco’s death I can’t help thinking of Jose Marie Jiminez, another great cyclist who came to a tragic end. In much the same way as whenever Ayrton Senna’s death is mentioned I can’t help but be reminded that there was another F1 driver who lost his life that weekend that of Roland Ratzenberger.

Nick June 27, 2014 at 11:36 am

Ratzenberger’s death is dealt with powerfully in the Senna film. Will be interesting to compare Pantani to that.

Mk June 27, 2014 at 11:48 am

I watched this last night. It was awesome. I grew up watching Pantani and loved him and his style. I watched in horror the Festina Tour, I saw the situation first hand whilst racing in Europe a fe years later.

The film was a real trip down memory lane and I feel set the tone of the Italians love for Marco perfectly. It was disappointing it didn’t go into the real details of his last few months, but I assume things had to be forgiven in order to get his family involved..

The Italians are in a whole league of their own when it comes to doping and turning a blind eye. Hopefully they watch this movie and see how one eyed and short sighted they were and how bad it made a whole generation of their riders suffer

PT June 27, 2014 at 2:38 pm

Just watched this on a plane tonight. I can’t disagree with many of the criticisms above but overall, I enjoyed it. It wasn’t perfect but it added depth to what I knew. Similar to the Senna film in a way. Regardless of the drugs issue (which is pretty central to the whole film), I really enjoyed watching Pantani ride. His descending was fantastic and his climbing technique (standing with hands in the drops) is also incredible. He really was a beautiful bike rider to watch.

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