In the lead-up to the 2014 World Cup, Brazilian artist Vik Muniz created a pair of massive art installations using 20,000 carefully arranged soccer balls — an impressive accomplishment, but not one that could possibly sustain a feature-length film. Instead, his amiable if hopelessly scattered docu, “This Is Not a Ball” (directed alongside Juan Rendon), uses it as a jumping-off point to travel the globe exploring the significance of “the ball” as both concept and object. Muniz uncovers a raft of intriguing people and stories, with subjects ranging from sports to astrophysics, gender politics, history and developmental psychology, but he never sits still with them long enough to ask any probing questions, and the film never arrives at any real point. Set to hit Netflix the same week the Cup kicks off, the docu should at least attract some curiosity.
Previously the subject of Lucy Walker’s Oscar-nominated 2010 docu “Waste Land,” Muniz has built a reputation for large-scale artworks involving such nontraditional materials as string, wire, sugar and garbage. For his soccer-ball project — whose origin is never really explained — he plans to produce two identical displays, one in a Rio de Janeiro favela, the other in Mexico City’s gargantuan Azteca Stadium. But first, he tells us in v.o., he must come to terms with the nature and significance of the ball, and the film jumps between scenes of the artist at work with tangential interviews of various far-flung characters.
To be blunt, the look at Muniz’s artistic process is neither terribly interesting nor informative, and the pic’s attempts to imbue his minor organizational snafus with a sense of urgent, beat-the-clock drama are about as on point as a John Terry penalty.
The film’s best sequences, by contrast, have little to do with this central project — or each other, for that matter — but exude their own standalone fascination. A visit with Brazil’s pre-eminent female soccer superstar, Marta, seems as if it could anchor a whole film on its own, and interviews with some extraordinary amputee footballers in Sierra Leone also beg for further attention. “Cosmos” host Neil deGrasse Tyson never seems entirely sure what he’s doing in this film, but he does come up with a far more exciting, dangerous idea for a 10,000-ball art project than the one Muniz has in mind.
Other vignettes, however, are either underdeveloped or come across as blatant time-fillers. The brilliant soccer writer Simon Kuper, for example, is trotted out just to give a rudimentary summary of soccer’s organizational history, and glimpses of the sport’s ancient ancestors like Italian calcio fiorentino, Japanese kemari and Burmese chinlone are essentially illustrated Wikipedia briefs.
More egregiously, a visit to a Pakistani ball factory sees a seamstress provide a strikingly blunt, sad assessment of her own children’s chances to find a job beyond physical football-related labor, only to be asked a glib and unrelated follow-up question. And Brazil’s own volatile street protests against the World Cup get only begrudging screentime: Muniz clearly wants to keep things sunny, but when he’s willing to scour the globe seeking soccer stories, his seemingly middling interest in the one exploding in his backyard is frustrating.
The film is very attractively assembled throughout, almost to a fault — the photography has a travel-agency gleam at times, and the pacing is so brisk and episodic, one keeps expecting it to cut for commercials.