The premise is De Sica's, taken down to Dante's Inferno: The circles are a struggling daredevil's loop and a former bicycling champ's arena, dilated by Mohsen Makhmalbaf from Boycott's closing shot. The protagonist (Moharram Zaynalzadeh) is a well-digging Afghan immigrant with a dying wife in the hospital; distraught, he sees a man trying to commit suicide by throwing himself under the wheels of a truck, the crowd saves him and damn near beats him to death before lending him a few coins ("Find yourself a more fashionable job"). Medical bills pile up, so Zaynalzadeh accepts a circus promoter's offer and is turned into the great Nassim, who "once stopped a train in India with his gaze" and is to now ride his bicycle nonstop for seven days in a continuous cycle. A freak event disguised as a "life lesson," it's monitored not just by referees and medics but also by betting onlookers, radical hotheads, and corrupt officials. The ringmaster gets the crowd chanting "We are happy, we are hopeful," though the feeling is that of a riot perpetually on the brink of an explosion -- the man at the eye of the storm is alternately tagged a spy and placed ahead of a protesting group (cf. Modern Times), at one point hallucinating himself in the audience, a victim of "spiritual leprosy." Makhmalbaf's filmmaking is no less frantic, raucous distortion (a surgery room is given cathedral sideway lighting, the inside of an ambulance is made cavernous) centered on meticulous explorations of the possibilities of an anxiously panning camera. Toothpicks are used to keep Zaynalzadeh's eyelids from drooping, his Calvary on wheels brings out the greed of post-revolution Iran's system, as well as the solidarity of its populace: When nails are sprinkled in the cyclist's way, there's a communal rush to find a new vehicle, blithely confiscated from the nearest passerby. Makhmalbaf builds the race towards a crowd-pleasing climax, but the film's concluding freeze-frame entraps rather than cheerleads his underdog -- the struggle pushes on, even if the authorities insist on seeing it as no more than "a good slogan." With Esmail Soltanian, Mohammad Reza Maleki, Firouz Kiani, and Samira Makhmalbaf.
--- Fernando F. Croce