“El Cinco,” Argentinean writer-director Adrian Biniez’s follow-up to his Berlin prize-winning debut, “Gigante” (2009), begins as an effective, believable but predictable sports drama about an aging soccer player in midlife crisis. Biniez doesn’t so much subvert the genre as divert it into romantic channels as charming as they are unexpected, treating soccer as a workaday environment of exercises, locker-room exchanges and pep talks, but never milking the game for nail-biting, play-by-play suspense. A warm, gently humorous take on serious life-changes thanks to winning performances and a piquant script, “El Cinco” could score with arthouse auds despite rather than because of its sports hook.
Paton (Esteban Lamothe), the 35-year-old captain of a C-league soccer team, is suspended for three months when his roughhouse play injures an opponent. This action, like much of the action in the film, takes place offscreen, its aftermath enacted as Paton is expelled from the field and furiously storms into the locker room (he definitely manifests anger-management issues). An aggressive confrontation with a trash-talking fan also transpires offscreen and is conveyed via Paton’s later release from jail, an occasion for jokes rather than drama.
Cut off from his usual concerns and routines, Paton begins to drink too much. The old specter of his earlier destructive behavior, when he was laid off for a previous injury, now causes concern for his companionable wife, Ale (Julieta Zylberberg). Then, suddenly, while playing a computer soccer game, Paton has a silent epiphany and suddenly decides that this season will be his last — a decision that he puts off sharing with his parents and teammates. Meanwhile, he and Ale begin hypothesizing about a new career — opening a laundry? A clothing delivery service? A lingerie shop? Paton’s limited investment capital and exclusively jock-centric experience considerably narrow their choices.
From this point on, Biniez creates a kind of dual narrative. One follows Paton’s downward spiral as various attempts to forge a new non-soccer-playing identity fail humiliatingly. A parallel storyline posits a loving, humor-filled relationship between Paton and Ale that only grows stronger with each temporary setback.
Paton’s resolve to go back to school for his GED leads to a series of math struggles, and his feelings of intellectual inferiority to his wife constantly threaten to sabotage their relationship. But her supportive, teasing manner and casual approach, plus his desire not to screw up the only completely successful part of his life, pull them back from the brink. The suspense missing from the film’s soccer games returns in full force when Paton takes his math exam, frantically changing his answers back and forth at the last minute.
Paton’s attempts to “research” clothing delivery possibilities end before they start, when he questions a boutique owner about buying wholesale from him (“This is a mall, man”), and they come crashing down on him when he wanders for hours looking for his car in a multi-level parking lot. But the film’s final scenes restore the couple’s clowning equilibrium, renew their libido and resolve their future in suitably laid-back fashion.
Zylberberg (the director’s real-life partner) proves an absolute delight as the quick-witted, loving wife, while Lamothe seems inseparable from his role as self-correcting lug. Biniez here demonstrates anew his ability to depict working-class characters whose charm lies embedded somewhere within their supposed limitations.