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.
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.
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