Depending on your point of view, Corneliu Porumboiu’s formal experimentalism either flatlines or finds witty new heights in “The Second Game,” which may or may not be a film at all. Presenting the footage of a snow-hampered 1988 Romanian soccer match in its original televised form, overlaid only with the reflective contempo commentary of the helmer and his father, Adrian — the match’s original referee — the pic represents the improbable meeting point of the Romanian New Wave, ESPN Classic and “Mystery Science Theater.” Amusing to a point, the concept runs out of steam as Papa Porumboiu saves his most interesting observations for the first half; as the match sputters to a goalless conclusion, so, too, in an admittedly self-aware way, does the film. It’s hard to see this curio remaining in play far beyond the festival circuit, where the upcoming soccer World Cup will lend it some neat (if short-term) topicality.
After observing that not much is happening in a haltingly paced match that even the most esoterically inclined sports aficionados would struggle to describe as one for the ages, Porumboiu beats his viewers to the punchline: “It’s like one of my films,” he deadpans, to Adrian’s silent agreement. (By this point, Porumboiu Sr. has already expressed his doubts about the project’s viability.) Obviously, familiarity with the “Police, Adjective” director’s luxuriantly slow-burning cinema is required to get the joke, though it’s a safe bet that only his most devoted admirers will be queuing up for this exercise to begin with. Any die-hard fans of Romania’s two leading soccer clubs, FC Dinamo and FC Steaua, that join them won’t be treated to either team’s finest 90 minutes.
The beauty of the so-called beautiful game, however, isn’t what’s being celebrated here; to egregiously mix sporting metaphors, this is in a very different ballpark from Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s extraordinary real-time study “Zidane: A 21st-Century Portrait.” Of more interest to Porumboiu is what’s happening offscreen, in two different contexts: the occasionally conflicted communality of spectatorship and, less abstractly, the behind-the-scenes political corruption of the country’s soccer scene. It’s the latter that initially promises the meatiest material, as Adrian explains the teams’ former institutional entanglements: Dinamo was managed by the country’s Internal Affairs Ministry, Steaua by the Romanian Army. (Union of European Football Associations rules required the clubs to be privatized in 1998.)
Pitching the match, essentially, as a showdown between the military and secret police makes it sound more sensational than it is, though Adrian imparts a few salacious nuggets upfront: Both teams fruitlessly sent representatives to bribe the unyielding ref, while Steaua’s team was selected by the son of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. The significance of the match taking place one year before the Romanian Revolution is left largely implicit; much like a character in one of his son’s films, Adrian isn’t much for talking.
For much of the second half, in particular, father and son watch the match in subdued but not entirely solemn silence, interrupted by the occasional pings and crackles of their cell phones. From their brief exchanges, we infer both the renewed respect of the filmmaker — only 13 years old at the time of the match — for his father’s integrity, and his father’s rueful doubts over his involvement in the whole enterprise. The restraint on show is touching, but also unilluminating: With no visual storytelling to speak of, these shards of personal and political memory remain frustratingly isolated.
As the players soldier on through increasingly heavy snowfall, the action in the already fuzzy archive footage becomes all but impossible to determine, which may be part of Porumboiu’s point: The game itself practically disappears before our eyes, becoming less memorable, or even definable, than the act of watching it.