Eternal Optimism: Corneliu Porumboiu’s “Infinite Football”
In Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s documentary Infinite Football (2018), he passes the ball to his subject Laurentiu Ginghina. While Porumboiu appears onscreen for most of his film, he generally comes across as a passive observer and shows great generosity to Ginghina. Ginghina, gets to talk far more than he does. In fact, Ginghina is not shy about expressing his ideas, which began with an injury that happened to him as a student playing football (what Americans call soccer) and almost left him unable to walk. He wanted to reinvent the game in order to make it safer. He didn’t succeed. Infinite Football shows what transpires for people whose high hopes don’t transfer to great results when they attempt to put them into action in the real world.
Porumboiu isn’t afraid to include longeurs in Infinite Football. In a lengthy scene, his conversation with Ginghina at the latter’s workplace as a civil servant is interrupted by a 92-year-old woman’s claim regarding a clinic constructed on her land 27 years ago. This shows what his daily life is like, but it’s not especially interesting for the spectator and it’s a distraction from Ginghina’s dreams — and that’s most assuredly why the director left it in.
In some ways, Ginghina’s dreams of infinite progress in football and his obsession with the sport’s possible perfection are parodic relics of his youth under communism. He talks about creating “football 3.0, football 4.0.” Due to his injury, he can no longer play sports and is reduced to observing gameplay while drawing endless diagrams of its possibilities on a board. Any potential he had to play sports professionally were crushed by his injury, leading him to a dull bureaucratic job where he dreams about his plans at night. He compares himself to comic book superheroes with double lives: Peter Parker/Spiderman, Clark Kent/Superman.
The film’s cinematographer, Tudor Mircea, shoots Porumboiu and Ginghina in long takes with a handheld camera and a deliberately drab palette. Infinite Football reflects a great patience. It also seems inspired by Ginghina’s logorrhea. One gets the sense that he feels great relief that someone is willing to listen to his ideas for minutes at a time. As soon as he started coming up with ideas for reforming football, he went to London and began looking for investors who could support him, with no luck.
This is the second documentary Porumboiu has made about football, but it’s quite different from his first, The Second Game (2014). There, the director put himself in the picture too, but he revealed more about his family and its place in Romanian history. The film consists of Corneliu and his father Adrian watching a VHS tape of an old game that Adrian refereed and talking about it. That game was played on December 3, 1988, and the events of the time are a natural part of their recollections. But the grainy look of VHS and the way it has quickly come to signify a more primitive past are as much a key part of what The Second Game is getting at as anything its two subjects say. The Second Game is interested in capturing a moment of change, especially reflected in something as banal as a football game.
Some of Porumboiu’s narrative films have centered on men like Ginghina: frustrated bureaucrats trying to do something right. Police, Adjective (2009) questioned Romania’s drug laws by way of an interrogation of the country’s language. Its cop protagonist isn’t a dreamer like Ginghina, but he has a stubborn and constantly frustrated notion that Romania can be made more just. As Ginghina’s goals to reform football proved impossible to put into action and his job in Romania bored him, he searched for escape outside the country. He wanted to travel to America to pick oranges in 2001, but 9/11 ended these plans. His eventual travels in Western Europe proved that his idealistic view of the European Union’s potential didn’t turn out to match its reality. Porumboiu’s last narrative film, The Treasure (2015), offers a view of another side of Ginghina’s personality: a man searching for a payout that’s unlikely to actually take place.
Nevertheless, Infinite Football never makes a case that Ginghina is a loser. It changes style completely for its finale. For the film’s first hour — it only runs 70 minutes — it stays resolutely mundane, with nothing one could seize on as a beautiful image or peak moment. Then it takes Porumboiu and Ginghina offscreen, as they drive and the former places the camera on the dashboard. In an odd echo of Travis Wilkerson’s Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (2017) or several Abbas Kiarostami films, the scene now focuses on an endless highway. Then the credits roll over images of animated birds, taken from a 1980s Russian computer screensaver. As he drives, Ginghina talks about his rejection of violence, even when it’s based on biblical justification, and how this influenced his plans to reform football. It would be easy to write him off as a man whose ideas are going nowhere. But Infinite Football always takes them — and him — seriously. Certainly, the film itself wouldn’t exist if the director saw no merit in documenting them. It’s unlikely that Ginghina’s “football 3.0” will make it to the world’s stadiums, but it matters that he’s yet to succumb to disillusionment and cynicism.
Making its North American Premiere, Infinite Football screens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Art of the Real” program on May 5.