From the outset you know this is no Hollywood fairytale. There is no happy ending. The guy dies at just 34, depressed, alone and coked out of his mind. But whilst we know precisely where the storyline is heading, this is still a compelling piece of filmmaking from Emmy-nominated director, James Erskine.
The powerfully made 90-minute documentary seamlessly blends often-breathtaking archival footage with interviews, past and present, providing a deep – and at times deeply disturbing – insight into the enigmatic Italian cyclist who, as his legend grew, became known as Il Pirata.
Whilst I obviously knew who Marco Pantani was, as someone who wasn’t such a passionate student of cycling back in the 1990s and early 2000s, I never appreciated the full complexity of his story – this is where I found the film to be fascinating. From his early days with the Fausto Coppi Cycling Club, to the crash which almost killed him when his collided with a car in the Milano-Torino race in 1995, to claiming the Giro/Tour double in 1998 (the last rider to do it), to his legendary jostling with Lance Armstrong on the switchbacks of Alpe d’Huez, it filled in a lot of blanks for me.
Deeply human and revealing, there’s an unmistakable mood of melancholy hanging over the entire film. The interviews with his heartbroken mother, close friends and former team-mates are moving. Sir Mutton Chops, Bradley Wiggins, also provides a modern rider’s perspective into the legend Pantani cast over the pro tour, omerta or not.
It would be wrong to say you enjoy a film like this. But I did appreciate it. In fact, if I’m being critical the only thing I didn’t really appreciate was the frequently patronising musings from Richard Williams, veteran journalist and Chief Sports Writer for UK newspaper, The Guardian. Erskine may have been using Williams in an attempt to make the film accessible to a wider audience, but for mine his presence simply made me feel like a schoolchild on more than one occasion. Compared to the parallel offerings from fellow Englishman, Mark Rendell, author of the superb book on which much of this film is based, “The Death of Marco Pantani”, I found Williams’ contributions largely redundant and distracting. But maybe that’s just me?
Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist is ultimately a tragedy on so many levels. Like the mountains upon which the rider made his name it charts his spectacular rise and ultimate fall without ever intending to cast judgement. It’s loaded with empathy but no definitive answers; which I found quite fitting given the recent events in Italy which suggest there may yet be more chapters to be told in the Marco Pantani story.
4 stars (out of 5)