The perplexing, criss-crossing films of Corneliu Porumboiu

Two new films by this cerebral director, different in style and subject matter but with a similar line in droll, doleful observation, are released this week.

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Happy Corneliu Porumboiu Day! (Don’t feel bad if it’s slipped your mind: there’s been a lot going on.) Two new films by this cerebral director, different in style and subject matter but with a similar line in droll, doleful observation, will be released on 8 May. Porumboiu, who emerged in the mid-2000s at the crest of the Romanian New Wave, was born and raised in the small eastern city of Vaslui, which provided the unlovely backdrop to his earlier films (including the philosophical 2009 crime drama Police, Adjective) and is now the setting for his documentary Infinite Football.

This director has soccer in his marrow: he’s the son of Adrian Porumboiu, a referee and businessman who bankrolled FC Vaslui for a decade (they won no prizes during that time). The subject of Infinite Football is Laurentiu Ginghina, a functionary who spends his office hours unpicking bureaucratic knots leftover from communism – one woman in her nineties is still trying to claw back her family’s land three decades after the revolution – and the rest of his time devising ways to make the beautiful game more ravishing still. His big idea is to snip the right-angles off the pitch, transforming it into an octagon and freeing up the corners, before dividing it into four sections. The teams would also be split into sub-teams, then split again into further sub-teams, and so on. As a footballing vision, it owes more to Zeno than Zidane.

There are benefits, Ginghina argues, in confining players to their designated segments: the workload is reduced, which will prolong their careers. But his overriding obsession is with the “freedom” of the ball; he wants to increase its speed by dispersing and decelerating the players. This goal can be traced back to a nasty injury he sustained at the age of 16 after being cornered and fouled by the opposing team as they fought for possession of the ball. Once his broken fibula healed, the doctors found that the bones had fused laterally – they were out of alignment. Small wonder he has devoted his life to making the different parts of football and society fit together more harmoniously.

Erudite though Ginghina is (his theories draw on everything from Plato and Eastern philosophy to discrepancies in early translations of the Bible), it would have been easy for the film to mock him. Deadpan humour does arise out of simple edits, such as a close-up of Ginghina talking that cuts to a mid-shot which reveals he has been brandishing a pointer and standing in front of a whiteboard the whole time.

Any notes of ridicule, though, are precluded by the film’s inclusion of the impassive, mole-like Porumboiu in front of the camera, whose resolve cracks only occasionally (“It’s too much for me!” he squeaks after being presented with yet another diagram), and by Ginghina: a Peter Boyle lookalike whose kindly, patient manner belies a lifetime of quiet disappointment – from his thwarted plans for a US career to the silence with which his improvements have been met by footballing federations. In the film’s most joyous scene, he compares himself to Spider-Man and Superman, both of whom also held down humdrum jobs when they weren’t saving the world. “I feel a bit like them,” he smiles. “In my double life, I revolutionise sport.” What’s strange is that by the end of these thought-provoking 70 minutes, his utopian ideals really have qualified him as a kind of superhero. If he isn’t headhunted by the Avengers after this, there’s no justice.

The perplexing, criss-crossing narrative of the week’s other new Porumboiu film suggests that Ginghina himself might have had a hand in the plotting. The Whistlers is uncharacteristically fast-moving for this director, as well as easier on the eye than his earlier work. Parts are set on sun-striped La Gomera in the Canary Islands, where the bent cop Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) has travelled to master “El Siblo”, the whistling language gangsters use to disguise communications as birdsong. (“Anything we speak can be whistled,” Cristi is told before learning how to break speech into whistled units of differing pitch. It’s all very Ginghina.) Even Bucharest is marinated in colour: there’s a hotel where the walls glow orange and the concierge plays opera to educate the clientele, though his guests are cops and crooks.

These characters have crept straight out of film noir – there’s a femme fatale named Gilda – and cinematic references course through the movie. It’s as though in finally embracing genre conventions he previously spurned, Porumboiu has thrown his arms around the whole of cinema. An American director meets a sticky end, an exchange of information occurs during a screening of The Searchers, the Psycho shower scene gets a near-replay and the police captain asks: “Do you think this is the Wild West?”– right before a shoot-out on an abandoned set. Cristi himself also popped up earlier in Police, Adjective. Recovering from an accident near the end of the new picture, he is asked: “Want to watch a movie?” To which the only sensible reply must be: “Sure. As long as it’s a Porumboiu.” 

“Infinite Football” and “The Whistlers” are streaming on Curzon Home Cinema 

Infinite Football (no cert) The Whistlers (15)
dir: Corneliu Porumboiu

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 08 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Remaking Britain

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