The Second Game (Al Doilea Joc): Berlin Review

the second game Berlin Film Festival - H 2014

the second game Berlin Film Festival - H 2014

The dry wit of director Corneliu Porumboiu saves at least half the game.

A referee looks back at a snowy 1988 soccer match between Romania’s top teams.

Corneliu Porumboiu, perhaps the most intellectually oriented of Romania’s new wave directors, has been going off on unpredictable artistic tangents ever since 12:08 East of Bucharest won the Camera d’Or at Cannes. His droll vision of what film can be reaches an amusing new level in The Second Game, a movie with no camerawork or editor, just the uncut footage of a 1988 Romanian soccer game aired on national TV. He dialogues with his father, who was the match’s referee, in the offscreen soundtrack. The concept works surprisingly well up to half-time, as all the bizarre details surrounding the match are revealed, then peters out in an ennui-fraught second half.

As the director’s father Adrian Porumboiu flatly states, nobody wants to see an old game, suggesting that the film will have no audience. This isn’t entirely true, because it is a festival item par excellence, and with the FIFA World Cup coming up this summer might get a leg up at festivals. Though their numbers may be limited, the world’s referees (and soccer fans in general, whose numbers are unlimited) should enjoy Adrian’s matter-of-fact analysis of his calls of foul and presentation of yellow cards.

In the opening five minutes Romania’s two leading teams, Dinamo and Steaua, take the field. For the next 90 minutes we see the game, filmed in Stone Age low tech by three TV cameras. It has begun to snow hard but Adrian decides to allow the match to take place, even if the playing field is fast being obliterated. The main thing is that the ball bounces and doesn’t stick to the ground, and that players can see the goal from the half-way line.

Who is playing? Steaua is the Army team, hand-picked by Valentin Ceausescu, son of the reigning dictator; Dinamo is the Secret Police team. Nice face-off.  Both teams send reps to lean on Adrian before the derby, but he manfully shrugs them off. 

As the snow starts coming down in curtains, the evenly matched teams dig in. The temperature is below freezing, the stadium packed and dotted with open umbrellas, but the players give it all they’ve got in a fast-moving game that bounces from one goalpost to the other. As the referee, Adrian does his best not to slow down the action. When fouls and fights do occur, the TV camera discretely pans over the crowd, fast disappearing behind the heavy snow. The surreal atmosphere is increased by bandaged and bleeding players who continue their battle to the death.

“It’s like one of my films,” says the director at one point. “It’s long and nothing happens.” True, but audiences familiar with his earlier work like Police, Adjective and When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism will be searching for something more than meets the eye, some political comment rising up from the soccer field itself, something on the order of female fans being barred from the stadium in Jafar Panahi’s Offside, or some subtle word game like the one in Police, Adjective. And to what second game does the title refer?  Another hypothetical match, had circumstances been different? The fact that it takes place one year before the fall of Ceausescu is surely significant, but most viewers will judge from what’s on the screen, a game in the snow that becomes repetitious and unimaginative in the second half.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum),  Feb. 12, 2014
Production company: 42 Km Film
Cast: Adrian Porumboiu, Corneliu Porumboiu
Director: Corneliu Porumboiu
Screenwriter: Corneliu Porumboiu
Producer:  Marcela Ursu
Music: Max Richter
Sales Agent: Siehe Produktion
No rating, 97 minutes.