"Endurance" is the story of Haile Gebreselassie, who won the 10,000-meter race at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and has since been hailed as the greatest long-distance runner of all time.
Part documentary, part drama, Leslie Woodhead's film chronicles the early life of Gebreselassie, who grew up on a farm in Ethiopia along with his parents and nine brothers and sisters.
Running six miles to and from school every day, walking three miles to get water and walking through the rocky soil behind teams of oxen, all while barefoot, Gebreselassie began to hone the persistence and imperviousness to pain that would be so crucial in his running career.
He also withstood the constant criticism of his father, who expected his son to continue with his schooling and enter a profession.
"Endurance," which was co-produced by Terrence Malick, is constructed not as a movie but as a poem, in the form of the odes that used to be composed for Olympic champions when they returned home.
Understood this way, the film is quietly effective, dramatizing Gebreselassie's childhood with brief, emblematic scenes and drawing the narrative together with equally simple title cards that convey the conditions of his life.
It helps that Gebreselassie and his family are portrayed by actual members of his extended clan, who perform the rituals of birth, work, worship and death with unself-conscious grace.
Rather than an in-depth portrait of its subject or a melodramatized fiction of his life, "Endurance" makes its points suggestively, so that by the end of the movie viewers get a sense of what drives Gebreselassie to run.
By the time he gets to Atlanta -- where Olympic filmmaker Bud Greenspan filmed his record-breaking race -- viewers have an indelible sense of Gebreselassie's spirituality, his relationship with his father and his own diffidence and commitment, even though he has uttered no more than two dozen words during the entire movie.
Woodhead has done an outstanding job of capturing the contexts of Gebreselassie's life, from the sere countryside of east Africa to the impoverished city of Addis Ababa.
And he has woven the runner's own labored breathing and whispered prayers together with John Powell's triumphant musical score to stirring effect.
"Endurance" is an odd film, not quite as intimate as the best documentary and not as narratively tidy as great sports movies such as "Without Limits."
But perhaps no film has been as effective at expressing the determination, miraculous genetics and inchoate sense of vocation that make Olympic champions worthy of song.
Starring Haile Gebreselassie, Yonas Zergaw, Shawanness Gebreselassie, Gebreselassie Bekele
Directed by Leslie Woodhead
Released by Walt Disney Pictures
Running time: 83 minutes
Sun Score: * * *
Pub Date: 7/30/99