'Infinite Football' ('Fotbal infinit'): Film Review | Berlin 2018

Infinite Football Still 1 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of the Berlin International Film Festival
Minor-league stuff will find its defenders on the festival circuit.

Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu's second soccer-themed documentary premiered in the Forum section of the German extravaganza.

World cinema's leading soccer-aficionado Corneliu Porumboiu fumbles his second attempt at tackling the beautiful game with the Berlinale-premiering Infinite Football (Fotbal infinit). Admirers of the Romanian auteur and/or sporting esoterica are the most likely to get a kick out of this 70-minute portrait of a minor government official who dreams up elaborate ways of revolutionizing a very simple sport.

In terms of documentary form, it's much more conventional and accessible than its demandingly conceptual, critically acclaimed 2014 predecessor The Second Game. But even taking into account the film's timely arrival in the year of a World Cup, the philosophically minded miniature will struggle to break out of the festival circuit — where plentiful play is guaranteed on the back of Porumboiu's name.

The writer-director made a spectacularly accomplished feature-length debut at the height of the Romanian New Wave with 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), then garnered wider exposure with his wordy follow-up Police, Adjective (2009). His output in the present decade has been much spottier, though Porumboiu's star seemed to be back in the ascendant with his most recent fictional outing, The Treasure (2015).

Each of these films — along with other examples from his oeuvre — touches on obsessive, extreme, competitive behavior among men, a theme which is front and center in Infinite Football. Softly spoken, stern, sober and serious, middle-aged Laurentiu Ginghina seems unremarkable at first glance. But the more he talks — and dialogue has always formed a crucial element of Porumbiu's playbook — the more of an oddball he turns out to be.

Having been thwarted in his own sporting ambitions by severe injuries in his teenage years, the luckless Ginghina has devoted decades to pondering how football can be "improved." These amendments include the exotic-sounding but actually quite sensible concept of replacing the pitch's traditional square corners with octagonal shapes inspired by east Asian aesthetics. But they usual taking the form of additional rules and complexities, such as restricting player movement to certain zones indicated by lines on the pitch.

As these ideas are expounded, they invariably turn out to deal with balances between freedom and restriction. And while they at no point refer to previous football revolutionaries such as the Netherlands' Rinus Michels (of "total football" fame), they reveal much about the mindset of Ginghina. An intelligent man born into a communist Romania under Nicolae Ceausescu, he entered into adulthood when the whole of Eastern Europe was making a rapid transition from repressive totalitarianism to anything-goes capitalism.

Such implications and undercurrents are undeniably intriguing, but could perhaps have been more satisfyingly conveyed in a short. Even at 70 minutes, Infinite Football feels like it contains a significant amount of padding — a section in which Ginghina is interviewed in his office takes a digressive turn when he deals with an elderly lady and her son embroiled in a legal dispute over land ownership. Elsewhere, extended sequences show Porumboiu struggling to understand Ginghina's more elaborate innovations and pointing out obvious flaws in their crazier convolutions.

The filmmaker clearly gains much by hanging out with his stimulating pal; audiences, particularly those not particularly interested in football formations, may feel more detached. And while Ginghina's originality of thought is prodigious, Infinite Football is relatively staid, content to follow established essay-documentary techniques. The colorful closing titles (sampling a Russian animation aside) conclude matters on a lively note — as with The Treasure, Porumboiu dispenses with soundtrack music until the very last seconds — but otherwise this is a visually flat enterprise, shot on mostly cheap-looking video with a wintry palette of grays and blues.

The Second Game, which presented a 1980s soccer match in full with contemporary commentary from Porumboiu and his father — a former football referee of considerable renown — was a bold idea played out at feature length with admirable if somewhat taxing single-mindedness. It gained much from the sometimes ill-tempered interactions between an artistically minded son and his no-nonsense old man.

Here the core relationship between Porumboiu and Ginginha, who seem to be on pretty friendly terms, never quite comes into illuminating focus. Infinite Football has moments of nicely deadpan humor and some deft little touches of insight along the way courtesy of Porumboiu's offbeat protagonist — but major league it certainly is not.

Production company: 42 km film
Director-screenwriter: Corneliu Porumboiu
Producer: Marcela Ursu
Executive producer: Ramona Grama
Cinematographer: Tudor Mircea
Editor: Roxana Szel
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Forum)
Sales: MK2, Paris

In Romanian
70 minutes