Front-and-centering Corneliu Porumboiu’s childhood friend, Laurentiu Ginghina, Infinite Football is drawn up in reminiscences from youth and long-shadowed disappointments of adulthood. In the arena of arthouse cinema, it would be too easy to assume Porumboiu is deploying such unflashy material in service of a sweeping subtextual reveal. But the Romanian auteur resists spelling anything out but the bare essentials, instead continuing his project of inviting viewers to closely parse the acerbic day-to-day banalities of post-Ceausescu Romania. The film opens on an interview with Ginghina about an injury he suffered while playing soccer in 1986: how he had to limp many miles home in the cold, how his parents and doctors glossed over the broken fibula in his right leg, and how the injury would mean he could no longer apply for forestry school, due to the requirements of the physical exam. Ginghina didn’t blame this turn of fate on himself, or the player who tackled him, but rather on the structure of football as it’s commonly played. And, indeed, the experience would change his thinking on the sport forever.
A government bureaucrat by day, Ginghina compares himself to Peter Parker and Clark Kent, on a mission to perfect soccer for future generations. A lengthy centerpiece sees him demonstrate for Porumboiu exactly how and why he would improve the layout of modern-day football, by eliminating the offside rule, barring players from crossing their respective halves of the field, and rounding off the right angles on the corners: “We increase the ball’s speed by decreasing the players’ speed.” If you have seen Porumboiu’s extraordinary 2009 film Police, Adjective, it’s impossible to avoid finding likenesses between this scene and that film’s final one, wherein a beat cop, pressured by his higher-ups to arrest a teenage pothead, sketches out the exact coordinates of the imminent sting operation in military-grade detail. While the stakes are lower in Infinite Football, the thrill—if that’s the right word—of watching somebody’s inner world put down on a chalkboard, bringing weeks of custom-accumulated knowledge to bear, is the same.
There’s also a scene where the filmmaker visits his friend in his office, and their conversation about soccer is interrupted by a 92-year-old woman who still hasn’t gotten her plot of land back from the government, 27 years after the revolution. The moment recalls Porumboiu’s 2007 feature-length directorial debut, 12:08 East of Bucharest, a dour comedy of overhyped reminiscences and deflated expectations, which took place in Porumboiu’s hometown of Vaslui, where Ginghina still lives. Given the man’s intentions to become a laborer in the United States in 2001 (which were botched by immigration restrictions after 9/11), Infinite Football serves as a quiet referendum on the underwhelming economic windfalls that supposedly awaited Romania after joining the European Union. (At one point, Ginghina points out that member states still celebrate national holidays, not EU ones.)
If not exactly infectious, Ginghina’s optimism over the project of reforming “the beautiful game”—his eyes shining when he talks about the inherent potential of his new rules—is the low-key emotional backbone of the film. Whatever suspense Porumboiu has built thus far was yoked to the possibility that his friend is onto something, but after the upgraded rules are put to the test in an underwhelming scrimmage, the filmmaker doesn’t try hiding his on-screen skepticism. Confused and exhausted amateur leaguers idle on the field, given extra time to think about strategy now that they’re barred from chasing the ball; a coach assisting Ginghina offers that his ideas aren’t so much improvements for football as strictures of an entirely new game, to which he (somewhat sheepishly) assents. Porumboiu later ribs his friend for refusing to lay down a hard rule on his own renovations, to which Ginghina replies that Porumboiu should allow for “football 2.0, football 2.1, football 3.0,” and so on—the repartee from which the film discovers its title.
Without itself calling for specific changes in government policy or the rules of football, Infinite Football is ultimately a paean to (and warning against) expectation. Even though Porumboiu has turned the camera on himself from the very beginning, his is a shifting presence that serves to counteract his friend’s certainty—a luxury that this most sly of filmmakers, one can only conclude, does not permit himself. His coda takes off from a candid ensemble photo from Ginghina’s wedding (taken by his father, who presents Porumboiu with a large print of an obfuscated photo of him from that same day), launching into a meditation on the relationship between enlightenment and punishment. Against the vista of a train track pushing the camera further and further from Porumboiu’s hometown, he opens up a question that Infinite Football ultimately declines to answer: Why it is that some things must change, while others are permitted—if not fated—to stay the same?