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.