April 28, 2006

Goals and love on display at Latino Film Festival

If there’s one thing that’s consistent throughout all Latin and South American countries, it’s their love for fútbol—--soccer, as we ignorant Americans know it. As a fan myself, I was excited to see two soccer-themed films on the Latino Film Festival schedule: El Penalti Más Largo del Mundo and O Casamento de Romeu e Julieta.

El Penalti Más Largo, a Spanish film directed by Roberto Santiago, is about Fernando, the reserve goalkeeper of a minor league soccer team who has a week to prepare for the most important penalty kick he'’ll ever have to face. He has spent his entire career warming the bench, and even his own coach tells him he’s a shitty player. But when Román, the starting goalkeeper, is injured in the last minute of the last league match of the season (a match that could promote the team to a higher league) and concedes a penalty in the process, Fernando’s life suddenly changes.

By day, Fernando (Fernando Tejero) works at the local supermarket, owned by the team’'s owner, alongside two of his teammates. He drinks beer on the job--—in fact, he drinks beer constantly and explains his drunkenness as a consequence of inertia--—and begs weed off his sister’s boyfriend in the middle of the night. In one character’s incredulous words, “"The entire championship depends on this schmuck.”" You’d think that for such an important occasion, Fernando would spend the entire week training, but he doesn’t seem to be making much of an effort.

Fernado only seems to be interested in using his new status as a pseudo-celebrity to score a date with Cecilia, the coach’'s daughter and Román'’s girlfriend—--someone who, in any other circumstance, wouldn’t give him the time of the day. He claims that her company is “motivation” for him to play as well as he can. This romantic side story could have been something touching had it not been overwhelmed by the fact that Fernando’'s teammates and sister get almost as much screentime as he does, their messed up relationships providing a foil for his own desperate exploits.

I left the theater unsure of how to label this film. Santiago has tried to make something that is half sports comedy, half romantic comedy, but because its focus wavers between both, it comes across as merely halfhearted. There is no real movement to the film, and thus no real catharsis or climax. Penalty kicks are either scored or saved, just like films are hit or miss. But there’'s a third option: The penalty taker can miss the goal entirely, and that is the fate of this film.

O Casamento de Romeu e Julieta, on the other hand, gets the formula between sports and romance right. The lovebirds are Julieta (Luana Piovani), whose was born and raised a Palmeiras fan, and Romeu (Marco Ricca), who is president of the Corinthians fan club. The two soccer clubs are huge in Brazil, and bitter rivals to boot; thus, it is very conceivable that Romeu and Julieta'’s respective family members would adamantly object to this pairing.

They meet and fall in love. This is established without much fanfare but with a lot of humor. On their first date, Julieta notices his Corinthians charm hanging from the rearview mirror and tells him she couldn’t date anyone who wasn’t a Palmeiras fan. Panicked, Romeu replies, “"Verde!"--”—a Palmeiras rallying cry. However, later that night, they are about to do the deed, when he looks down and sees that she’s lying on green blankets emblazoned with the Palmeiras insignia. Needless to say, the result was unsatisfactory for both parties. As he complains, "“Cocks don’t switch teams, do they?”"

It’s a good thing, then, that Julieta eventually figures out the problem and presents Romeu with a Corinthians-packaged condom for inspiration. But even though she seems to accept his loyalty to his club, he has already gone to great lengths to impersonate a Palmeiras fanatic in order to impress her father, alienating his family members in the process. Romeu’'s determination is believable in the same way that Shakespeare’s Romeo was--—men do crazy things for love.

My only problem with the film—--and this is from a discerning and nitpicky soccer fan’'s point of view--—is that the scenes involving fans at the matches are intense but not stunning like they so often are in real life. For instance, Barreto chooses to use actors to simulate a derby game, and the result is somewhat underwhelming. Although this really isn’t a crucial part of the film, it would have been nice if the audience could truly feel the passion that the fans have for their chosen teams, and thus understand why it is such a barrier for Julieta and Romeu.

There are plenty of details that would be impossible for me to describe in this review, but instead of cluttering the film, they enhance each character so that they become complex beings who require our sympathy and encouragement. About halfway through the film, it occurred to me that the title translates into "“Romeo and Juliet get married,”" implying a happy ending for a traditionally tragic tale. Of course, this is not uncommon for modern retellings, but on this occasion I found myself relieved because, in the realm of soccer, rival fans can do much, much worse than fall in love with each other.