Review: ‘The Athlete’

"Athlete" recounts the life and times of Africa's first Olympic gold medalist.

Based on a remarkable true story, told through a blend of drama and archival footage, “The Athlete” recounts the life and times of Africa’s first Olympic gold medalist, Ethiopian marathon runner Abebe Bikila. Co-helmed by visual artist Davey Frankel and Ethiopian athlete Rasselas Lakew (who also plays the lead), pic reps a worthy if somewhat programmatic contribution to cinematic sporting history. Upbeat yet tragic finale could ensure a few laps around the fest circuit and niche distribution.

Pic starts in 1969 with Bikila (Lakew, quietly dignified), then at the height of his career, revisiting his Ethiopian hometown, prompting some spectacular location scenery. Flashbacks and dialogue reveal how he survived WWII by hiding in hills, became an athlete and soldier, and then triumphed running barefoot in the 1960 Rome Olympics. However, in 1969, a car accident leaves him paralyzed. Not one to take adversity sitting down, Bikila fights to gain control of his arms at least and then goes on to win medals in cross-country sledging. Finale, set to a song by avant-garde Icelandic group Sigur Ros, is properly tearjerking if manipulative. Tech credits are low-budget but watchable all the same.

The Athlete



An Av Patchbay, El Atleta (U.S.)/Instinctive Film (Germany)/Riot Entertainment (Ethiopia) production. (International sales: Av Patchbay, New York.) Produced, directed by Davey Frankel, Rasselas Lakew. Screenplay, Lakew, Frankel, Mikael Amerio Awake.


Camera (color/B&W, 35mm-to-HD), Philipp Pfeiffer, Rodney Taylor, Radoslav Spassov, Toby Moore; editors, Davey Frankel, Matt Mayer; music, Christian Meyer; production designer, Tesfaye Wondemagegne; costume designer, Muslin Dulti. Reviewed at Edinburgh Film Festival (Rosebud), June 23, 2009. Original title: Atletu. Amharic, English dialogue. Running time: 85 MIN.


Rasselas Lakew, Dag Malmberg, Ruta Gedmintas, Abba Waka Dessalegn.

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