In The Second Game, filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu and his father sit down to watch an old analog tape of a soccer match that the father refereed in 1988, one year before the toppling of Nicolae Ceaușescu. We stare with them at the fuzzy television screen for 76 minutes, the duration of the match on which they comment. The documentary, part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Art of the Real” series, is an autobiographical meditation on memory, but also an off-handed treatment on the nature of film. At one point, Porumboiu’s father remarks that the match is like a film (Porumboiu’s, or perhaps films in general): “You watch and nothing happens.” But, of course, in this sly, multilayered haunting of the past, very much happens when nothing does.
Firstly, there’s the grim fascination of watching a match without sound; it becomes a silent ballet of players indistinguishable to most viewers, a reminder that soccer, like history, creates very localized allegiances. On the field, the visibility is awful as snow trickles down, yet devout fans fill the stands, partly because this is no ordinary game: The two minor-league teams are backed by dueling factions, the communist military police and the army, a tag of war in which Porumboiu’s father, who refused to let either team buy the results, stands as a cautious, politic mediator. Offering a soccer match as a metaphor for a fallen system that transformed sports into nationalistic pageantry of pride and honor, while secretly rigging games—and, politics—behind its citizens’ backs, The Second Game turns an ordinary, nostalgic gesture into a self-reflexive time capsule.
Porumboiu’s work is a fine example of an impulse toward meta-narrative that has recently reinvigorated the nonfiction form—which isn’t to say that this is necessarily new, as pointed out by Eric Hynes in his New York Times review of the series. For Porumboiu, digital film serves as an instigator, breathing life into minutes of stasis; the filmmaker believes that time is cyclical and his personality recedes into the background. This couldn’t be different from Raya Martin and Mark Peranson’s approach in La Última Película, staged as a prequel to a central apocalyptic event: A film to end all films.
La Última Película opens with a brief monologue delivered by a grandiloquent filmmaker (played by director Alex Ross Perry). Perry announces the end, for himself and his crew, but also possibly the world, as he uses up all of his film stock to document it. But first, his mission is to scout locations in the Yucatán Maya ruins, to produce a sci-fi film that references westerns, Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, and a staged documentary about the movie The American Dreamer. Borrowing some of the dialogue from The American Dreamer, La Última Película’s plot consists of rambling scenes in the ruins, takes of corpses stained with fake blood, and a pick-up scene in a bar, in which a mysterious local beauty turns out to be an entrepreneurial journalist covering a famous chef who prepares “the meal of all meals.” This is a hilarious conflation of wanton ambitions, in a film to end all films, and an example of how the film constantly turns on itself, and reality never adheres to the script: A western becomes an anti-western, masculinity a posturing, and a pretty damsel a tough reporter. To make a point about reaching cinema’s precipitous cliff, Martin and Peranson mix media—they work with 16mm, digital cameras, and an iPhone—to create a jumbled cinematic language that consumes its own history (the film is being shown in 35mm).
There are some low points, such as when Perry harangues new-age types who meditate at the ruins, fitting the ancient culture to their own ends. It’s not clear to what end Perry is posturing here, and his character, for once, appears lost in his own pastiche. More endearing than individual scenes is a sense of impossibility that permeates the film: Again and again, we’re reminded of film stock’s inferiority vis-à-vis architecture or painting (though the idea that paint is durable sounds dubious), with filmmaker as a hapless bumbler, a culler of random instances; yet it’s this debased medium that’s to preserve our civilization. This makes Perry a very peculiar prophet, with La Última Película as a jittery manifesto that professes to look to the future, while, partly in jest, eviscerating the past. Images about images, commentary about commentary, are the hallmarks of this nonfiction film in the postmodern mode.
Not all the films in the “Art of the Real” series are so self-consciously, or, at times, so megalomaniacally meta, but some strike a delicate balance between reflexivity and intimacy. In Davi Pretto’s quietly solicitous Castanha, João Pedro Castanha plays himself as a cross-dressing performer in the southern Brazilian town of Porto Alegre. Castanha’s female incarnations are tantalizing, and their thick, dramatic makeup and glittery costumes leave the performer in his off-stage, daily routines seeming like a pale ghost. Stage is real, the film seems to say, and life can only be less so. At the same time, Pretto’s meshing of reality and dream is so seamless that they appear to spring from the same fabric, with quietly haunting results. We watch as Castanha fans over his elderly mother with whom he lives, and threatens his troublesome nephew, Marcelo, who’s addicted to crack. Ghosts appear, including Castanha’s lover, his existence haunted by the specter of the HIV virus, not to mention hints of violence against gays.
Pretto incorporates into the film clips of military police in the streets of São Paulo during the 2013 manifestations against the government, as seen by Castanha on television. Yet this politically engaged world is tellingly far from Castanha’s ambition to live solely for the stage, a lofty dream, but also alienating, and one which takes on greater poignancy as we watch him in his less glorious incarnations: in a radio play for children, and as a movie extra playing a cabbie. But if Castanha puts up defenses, walling himself off from reality, the city has them as well, and we see nocturnal Porto Alegre as hauntingly abandoned, secured by gates and guards, yet tenebrous, hinting that the terrors which choke João are also the city’s, and the country’s, terrors.
Bloody Beans by Narimane Mari also has the lucid, meandering structure of a dream. In it, a group of children sunbathe and doze on an Algerian beach, talking of hunger and games. A lively exchange about black versus white beans’ effect on farting leads one boy to say, “You’re starting to fart like a Frenchman,” a first hint that Mari, who situates her story in ordinary gestures and parole, wants to employ them metonymically as vestigial remnants of colonialism. From the beach, we move swiftly to an encounter with a white man wearing a pig’s mask, and an abused Spanish woman, with whom the children commiserate, even though she remains to them a foreigner, the “other.”
Mari repeats the motif of childlike empathy when the children effect an imaginary attack on a French garrison—a long, hallucinatory sequence, staged to electric music, which ends with the group’s kidnapping of a French soldier. “We’ll kill him,” the children say, but as the sun dips languidly, and the film’s tensions soften, they end up listening to the soldier’s clumsy foreign songs, and feeding him local food. Mari takes up the idea of play and of masquerade as a way to exorcise colonialist nightmares, and presents a poignant portrait of youth suspended between the frightful past and an uncertain future. The beach itself becomes an untenable oasis where, in the midst of play, a plane suddenly appears. As they swoop down, striking fear, we’re reminded that the past never truly ends.
The Film Society of Lincoln Center will present “Art of the Real” from April 11—26.