Federico Veiroj’s A Useful Life is an elegy to cinephilia and the lives less ordinary keeping it on life support in this 3D-obsessed age of ever-materializing megaplexes. Starring real-life Uruguayan critic Jorge Jellinek, the film is practically a documentary of the effort curators go through to bring works such as this to art houses near you: Much of the story focuses on Jellinek’s Jorge, an employee of the Cinemateca Uruguay for 25 years, trapped in occupational autopilot, changing reels, talking up films, trying to secure rights for the ones he would love to screen, testing the cushioning of the movie house’s seats, and prepping for a celebration of Manoel de Oliveira’s centennial. All in a good day’s work, but what’s good about it exactly?
A Useful Life’s dramatic laxity can be blinding, but it’s not without its moments of silent, rather droll, lucidity. While screening the fictional Febrero, Jorge apologizes to the film’s director for a projection gaffe even the most tech-obsessed cinephile would have failed to notice. Maybe Jorge’s lack of charisma is Jellinek’s own, but that the character keeps his cool where others would have lost it testifies not only to the seriousness with which the man regards his job, but also exemplifies the temperament of a certain type of cinephile that Veiroj is keen on scrutinizing. For this rather hermetic, seemingly antisocial man, what is life without the cinema?
Veiroj wryly ponders that question when Jorge is rattled by the announcement that the Cinemateca, because of diminishing audiences and lack of financial support, will be closing its doors. Taking to the streets, Jorge is essentially forced—as Kent Jones recently advised film geeks—to “discover the world,” but how does one discover a world they only understand through the movies? For a shell-shocked Jorge, walking through Montevideo as if he were a creation of Lisandro Alonso, crossing the street becomes a challenge more considerable than life itself. And so A Useful Life blooms as a study of cinephilia as a means to a sheltered end.
This sly film, shot in color but printed in black and white, feels as if it’s conning us. Could Jorge, who struggles to articulate his feelings for one of the Cinemateca’s frequent female patrons, go postal? Walking through a law school’s hallways with a duffle bag in hand, you fear as much, but Jorge isn’t interested in annihilation. After stalling inside a library to stare at a wall of books, no doubt contemplating how their knowledge reaches us, he allows himself to be amusingly pulled into a university classroom, where, after pretending to be a substitute teacher, recycles before a chalkboard that could pass for a movie screen a famous speech by Mark Twain on the art of lying.
Veiroj is fixated on cinema as an instructive and maternal presence in our lives—a force that often shields us from the very truths it frequently represents. Jorge’s journey throughout the second half of A Useful Life is essentially a philosophical one, and even though his greatest conflict is no greater than getting a haircut and mustering the strength to ask a woman out on a date, his final epiphany is striking because of the way he manages to connect his love of movies to a world beyond the screen. His salvation comes from understanding that it isn’t enough to appreciate what Gene Kelly does—sometimes you have to tap like him too.