It takes a certain kind of madness to launch tireless charges up a mountain before freewheeling down so fast it’s barely possible to make out the scenery. Such madness certainly applied to Marco Pantani, the diminutive Italian who specialised in mountain climbing, attacking the Alps like a man possessed. James Erskine’s documentary tracks Pantani’s rise to the peak of his profession, winning the Giro d’Italia followed by the Tour de France in 1998, before doping accusations and a cocaine habit led to an overdose in 2004.
Pantani cuts an unlikely figure alongside his heavyset rivals. Falling between the eras of five time tour winner Miguel Indurain and Lance Armstrong, he was barely noticeable on flat ground but put an incline in his way, the steeper the better, and he came alive. Erskine draws heavily on archive footage that thrillingly reveals the persistent darting breaks he would make from the back of the field until he’d dragged himself up the mountain ahead of everyone else.
The film functions best when tracking Pantani’s rise. Not only does this provide the opportunity for Erskine to showcase his carefully researched footage, it also tells an almost unbelievable story of odds defied. The charismatic Italian, nicknamed the pirate due to his constant bandanna and earrings, suffered a horrific crash in 1995 that should have left him unable to walk again, never mind win one of the most arduous sporting competitions on the planet only three years later.
It’s the decline that occurred after he was disqualified from the 1999 Giro d’Italia that proves less successful. Too little time is dedicated to explaining just what occurred. His descent flies past swiftly in a blur of accusations and conspiracy theories. Erskine doesn’t even attempt to scratch the service of the doping allegations that blighted his later years. The Armstrong defence – everyone was doing it so it’s unfair to criticise – is alluded to but that’s about as far as he’s willing to go.
A series of irritating gimmicks are also used, distracting away from the real story. Unnecessary split screens and endless shots of mountains blight the film. Each section bizarrely starts with a quote that is then uttered from the lips of one of the contributors. Worst of all, Erskine employs cheap reconstructions to hammer home points. When Pantani crashes, he cuts to a broken bike with a blood splattered wheel spinning slowly round. A Pantani lookalike pops up near the end, witnessed watching news reports of his own demise. It all feels very much like an episode of Crimewatch.
Throughout, the story frequently stands far above the telling. Pantani comes across as an undeniably magnetic figure with a riding style that induces constant rushes of excitement while the complex man who lived his final years’ wallowing in a pit of despair is largely ignored. A decade on from his death, Erskine’s film provides a good overview of his triumphs but what happened after remains a hazy mystery.
Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist is in UK cinemas 16th May 2014.
Director: James Erskine
Writer: James Erskine
Stars: Conan Sweeny
Runtime: 96 min