Thursday 7 May 2020

Funny games: "Infinite Football"

There's a long-overdue comeback on UK screens this week for Corneliu Porumboiu, the ideas man who came to prominence amid the Romanian New Wave with 2006's riotous 12:08 East of Bucharest, set during a live TV discussion of the Ceaucescu regime, and 2009's droll procedural Police, Adjective. Curzon are releasing Porumboiu's latest, the wonky genre offering The Whistlers; pleasingly, Anti-Worlds are supplementing it with a runout for the director's previous film, his 2018 documentary Infinite Football. Longtime devotees will already know the place soccer occupies in this filmography: 2014's The Second Game found this director and his father providing a retrospective commentary over a VHS tape of a match Porumboiu Sr. once refereed on. The new film, notionally more conventional non-fiction, captures a 70-minute conversation between the director and Laurentiu Ginghina, a middle-aged clerk with a story to tell. This starts out as a fairly conventional story - how Ginghina had his footballing career ended by a tackle that left him with a broken leg - only for a cut to director and subject standing at a whiteboard, Infinite Football's zero-budget effort to match the flashy touchscreen tech of Football Focus, to signal there's a little more going on. I'll let Ginghina himself explain what that is, but it literally falls under the definition of a gamechanger.

For much of its running time, Infinite Football strikes the eye as a route-one movie, marked by a recognisably Romanian matter-of-factness. No attempt has been made to mess around with or dress up this story: we really are just watching Ginghina lay out his working while Porumboiu, with his faint air of the young Adrian Chiles, plays the straight man, standing at his subject's side, arms folded across his chest in classic "bloke on the terraces" style. Something of Errol Morris's studies of American eccentrics becomes visible in the pair's match-up, although Porumboiu resists Morris's conceptual and stylistic flourishes - and Ginghina himself doesn't appear all that eccentric, his big idea aside. At the halfway mark, the film relocates to his office, where the pair's conversation gets interrupted by an elderly petitioner and Ginghina compares his double life (as a functionary who's also a dreamer) to that of Peter Parker and Clark Kent; then it's onto the five-a-side pitches, where the vision can be tested against the reality, leading to some dryly funny scenes wherein Porumboiu shakes his head as Ginghina explains the virtues of his system all over again.

The question hanging over the film is what it's really about, beyond the glib retort "an hour and ten minutes". The lightly satiric tone suggests Porumboiu could well be razzing the ability of men to talk endless bollocks and waste limitless time on projects that make no difference whatsoever. (Football is an ideal arena in which to highlight these futile gestures: I write as a Coventry City fan who's spent half a year watching his team ascend to the top of a league that may never be finished.) There may even be a political edge to this discussion. Ginghina talks of the "freedom" of the ball, yet his masterplan keeps the players in more or less the same space, and one of its main practical drawbacks is that it would require three times the number of linesmen to look out for any infringements - some kind of mass surveillance. Is it possible that, under the guise of opening up the pitch, increasing player efficiency and producing a better product, this amiable fellow is actually proposing a footballing form of fascism? (Is that how fascism takes hold?) That said, the film feels fond rather than forbidding; you never feel Porumboiu looking down or askance at his pal. At the very least, the clerk is looking for an improvement on what's gone before, and he emerges as a one-off in his own way. No-one else has had this idea, and Porumboiu appears as surprised as anyone that someone so outwardly unprepossessing should turn out to be so singular in his thinking. Here is a VAR portrait of the only person on the planet ready to make the offside rule more complicated; football politics being what they are, he'll probably be elected president of FIFA by the time the Euros finally kick off.

Infinite Football will be available to stream via Curzon from tomorrow.

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