Written and directed by Davey Frankel and Rasselas Lakew, “Atletu (The Athlete)” mixes archival footage and narrative dramatizations to tell the story of Abebe Bikila, the first Olympic gold medal winner from an African nation with his 1960 marathon win.
After winning gold again in 1964, he saw his running career cut short when he was paralyzed in a car accident, though he would go on to compete at the championship level as an archer and dog sledder. The film, which originally premiered in 2009, was the first-ever foreign language Oscar submission from Ethiopia and is only now getting a belated local theatrical release.
Much of the archival footage is pretty incredible, colorful and has a palpable sense of you-are-there immediacy. The fictional segments starring Lakew as Bikila are more problematic, as they repeatedly throw off the overall pacing.
Bikila’s post-Olympic life seems so rich, overcoming a disability to compete at a championship level on his own terms in other sports is a story of a genuine triumph over adversity. Yet the way Frankel and Lakew choose to tell the story robs it of uplift.
There are perhaps two better films lurking within “Atletu,” one a more straightforward documentary and the other a narrative biopic, but this hybrid falls flat.
“Atletu (The Athlete).” No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. At Arena Cinema, Hollywood.