The Unknown Cyclist, Bernard Saltzman (1989)

A bike ride to raise awareness of Aids is the backdrop for a film about one of the 1980s most tragic issues

The dying wish of Christopher Cavatelli is that the four people he loves the most should join a 450-mile charity bike ride along the Californian coast. So, setting off on a mass-participation event organised by an Aids charity, are his ex wife, gay lover, slacker best mate and twin brother – a homophobic New York cop.

The rest is not difficult to guess. As the road rolls beneath them, various permutations of the unlikely foursome fall out, have sex, come-out to their parents and discover that they too are HIV positive. By the time Cavatelli’s final ashes are committed to the waves, all have learned from one another and developed a friendship.

But while the plot is on wheels, everything else is pedestrian. The dialogue is wooden, the cycling event improbable and, the acting threadbare. The film’s only ‘action’ a bicycle crash, deploys cinematic technique that would have looked dated in the 1920s. Just occasionally the gay-scene jokes are amusing – the ashes delivered in condoms, for example. And, for cycling obsessives there are some fleeting pleasures – the curious Softride bikes that are ridden by a surprising number of the cast and a passing sight of some period kit. When a film renders the Pacific coastline uninteresting, however, you know that something is seriously wrong.

Of more significance is the centrality of Aids to the plot. Although the epidemic was first reported in the national media in 1981, it was not the subject of a major Holywood treatment until 1995’s Philadelphia. The Unknown Cyclist is not the first time that Aids had made it to celluloid, but it is relatively early. Cheering as its sympathetic treatment of the subject is, though, its messages are delivered with the heavy handedness of a public information film.

The implication of the film’s title is that its subject should be rescued from anonymity: on balance, though, this is a cyclist better left unknown.

TD Oct 12

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