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“The Athlete” is an uplifting story about an Ethiopian runner named Abebe Bikila who became the first black African to win a marathon gold medal at the Rome Olympics (barefoot nonetheless). Years later, he then repeated his victory and record at the Tokyo Games making him the first runner ever to accomplish this consecutively. Through all his accomplishments he managed to be his countries hero second to Ethiopia’s emperor Haile Selsassie who he admired tremendously.
Abebe was a hero to his village; his own success brought his people and his land tremendous attention. People respected Abebe for who he was and what he did. In the film we see him as a family man and a serious man at that. On his way home he gets into a car accident that leaves him on the side of the rode trapped under his car for 10 hours. He is flown to England
where he is brought back to consciousness but faces bad news; he is paralyzed from the waist down. The true essence of the movie isn’t about how an Olympian athlete deals with being paralyzed but about a man’s struggle with the need to compete and win. With real archival footage dispersed throughout the film, you truly get a feel for this brave mans story.
Many elements of the film are great; Abebe’s story itself, the fact that he’s such a family man, his best friend Onni (Dag Malmberg), and his home land of Ethiopia. All of them play a great deal in the storytelling of Abebe. Unfortunately it lacked the idea of telling a complete story. We see Abebe say he loves his family and that he’d do anything for them but they were never shown, not once. In the question and answer with one of the directors and the actor who played Abebe, Rasselas Lakew, someone asked why that was and he merely said it was because they wanted to focus only on Abebe. If his family was who Abebe was then why not show that? During his life and especially when he was paralyzed his good companion Onni stuck by his side and made sure he was well taken care of physically and emotionally. We see Onni bring him things from Ethiopia from his family as well as take items and money back to his family from Abebe. Once Abebe was out of the hospital and in competitions for archery and other sports we don’t hear or see of Onni anymore. Like the last element, someone asked Rasselas why that was and his answer wasn’t clear and didn’t really make much sense.
The one thing the audience loved and praised Rasselas for were the beautiful panoramic shots of Ethiopia. No one there, including myself, realized how golden and beautiful Ethiopia could be.
I was happy this film was shown at the Santa Barbara Film Festival because it shows an athlete who not many knew was out there. Abebe Bakila loved what he did and loved that he had the opportunity to do it. His passion brought him fame as well as respect from his people which was the greatest thing he could ask for.
The Athlete (Davey Frankel and Rasselas Lakew, 2009): Ethiopia/Germany/USA
Reviewed by Gillian Weiner. Viewed at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival