Directed by Martín Farina
1h 22m, Argentina, 2014
Germany thrashed Argentina in the 2010 World Cup. Afterward, my tearful, red-faced, slobbery boyfriend dragged himself straight to bed and wouldn’t get up for three days.
He’d already yelled himself hoarse in front of the television for what seemed like hours, scaring me more than once as I cooked the after-game supper and popped popcorn. It was the most butch I’d ever seen him, and it wasn’t until I witnessed his abject despair that I began to understand how important fútbol can be to Argentines.
I don’t think many Argentines would argue with me if I said that fútbol is valued as highly as Catholicism, Maradona more universally loved than Papa Francis. (The former was true for my Juancito, the latter not so much. He was a River fan.) There are few lapsed fútbol fans and far more fans who want to be football players than priests, for good reasons.
But there are lapsed fútbolistas, and fútbolistas who don’t play very much or as well as they want to, or ones who don’t make as much money as they need to. Early on in Fulboy, in a voiceover observation about another in Bresson’s Pickpocket, Argentine director Martín Farina makes a startling claim — that professional players are the ones who play fútbol the least, in a country obsessed with it and filled with non-pros who want to be. He then sets out to prove it and in the process to discover who these players are — a not-so-famous team in third-division fútbol in Argentina — in relationship to that contradiction. He wants to recover them from the glamour imputed upon them, defend them against charges of venality and narcissism, and uncover, at least partially, why they play and how it feels to be a fútbolista.
Does he succeed? That depends on whether you were a believer before you watched this movie. I wasn’t and I’m still not, so what others might not notice, might overlook or might weigh differently — a player envying a construction worker outside a window in his cushy hotel where he lounges shirtless by the pool; a dangling Bulgari keychain in a hotel room; a conversation among the team’s obviously less well-paid support and maintenance staff about a player’s purchase of a USD $1000 mobile phone, or about how they have to pamper them before a game; a mass, metrosexual costume change as the team tries on free clothes from various sponsors; dry-shaving hairy body parts — for me all that becomes incontrovertible evidence that, despite the fact that these young men are exploited by the clubs and by the system, they’re still a lot better off than a typical taxi driver in el capital, or that construction worker outside the window enjoying the weather.
Everything is real and everything is fictitious.
Farina is aware of the ironies, and that must be one reason why his camera consistently objectifies the players’ bodies, which eroticizes them, yes; but also, because they’re often exposed in extreme close-ups, sometimes with faces occluded — bulge and crotch shots are common — they become abstractions, interchangeable if beautiful parts of a whole in which individuality doesn’t matter as much as the general traits of youth, skill, and availability. The point is made at least twice that a fútbolista’s career is usually up before he’s 35; so he must kick the ball down the field while his legs and hips are still strong — while he’s still hot.
We don’t have to count the number of shower scenes to realize that the gaze of this film is a gay one. Fulboy is presented by Argentine director Marco Berger (Hawaii, Plan B, Ausente, El Primo) one of the more recognizable names in worldwide gay cinephilia right now. But Farina also states early on that, even though the camera will never show his own face, what the camera does show will lead you to him, to understand who Farina is, and why the camera’s focus chooses what it does. His gaze and the camera’s are one and the same. (One thing this film isn’t and that’s Bruce-Weber-coy.) One shot consists of Farina’s camera following the crotch of a player around the locker room as if waiting for the towel to drop.
But Farina also allows the players to directly address the camera and to interrogate and augment his own filmmaking process in meandering, intelligent and often funny self-reflexive conversations. They worry about how they’ll be perceived, that the presence of one beer will make them look like alcoholics. In an almost 4-minute close-up, a player speaks directly to all these issues. I’m talking to you, he says, to the lens.
Just as often, however, in a kind of formal dialectics of shot compositions and editing tactics which mirrors some of the ways we’re guided to think about the players, the audio of conversations between them can be heard over shots of other players’ listening in. (Berger and Farina are both credited as editors, and for me, this work is even more impressive than anything Berger has done so far as a director.)
In one shot near the end of the film, the audio of a coach’s pregame exhortations plays over a group reaction-shot of the team, some players bemused, some distracted, some not listening at all. We’re never shown the coach. His breathless but monotone rant continues, reminding the players of why they play — not for glory, but for family — while the film cuts to a medium close-up of the locker room door, from the outside. Similarly, we’re never shown much actual game or training footage, except obliquely — a couple seconds of sneakered feet trotting onto a field, shot across the grass with only the feet and legs closest to the camera selectively focused. It’s as if the practice of fútbol itself had been displaced as incidental.
Do the players know how throughly they’ve been objectified? Do they approve? Those are questions I asked myself after a shot like this:
Given the obvious attention they give their own bodies in the film, it seems credible that they’re on board, or at least don’t mind much, for most of what Farina is trying to accomplish. They also get their own ribbing in, partially at the director’s expense.
Martín Farina’s brother, Tomás, whose team membership is the key to giving Martín such intimate access, must at least know what’s going on, and he provides one of the most telling moments of the film’s auto-critique. He questions his brother’s motives by calling him out when he suggests that shooting a scene with a player and his girlfriend (or possibly a prostitute or groupie) would “make good cinema.” Martín says yes, it would, but he’d never try to orchestrate it. Sensibly, few of the players present believe him.
“Why would I be lurking around them, if I weren’t a part of the team?” Martín asks in voiceover, and there’s more than one answer to that question.
But he continues: “So what opens the windows and doors is the camera — that is to say, the fact that these images are being seen by all of you.”
What you see in Fulboy depends on where you look and what you’re expecting when you do.
Read some risky writing.