Argentine scribe Julio Cortazar’s mysterious, ambiguous tales of 20th century life have often inspired filmmakers, most notably Michelangelo Antonioni in “Blow Up.” In “Underground Game,” Brazilian helmer Roberto Gervitz adapts Cortazar’s short story “Manuscript Found in a Pocket” into a serious film about the games a young man plays with complete strangers on the Sao Paulo metro. The intriguing concept and modernist execution keep the story rolling down the tracks, with a few speed bumps along the way. Arthouse passengers should expect some ennui on a generally classy ride that ends with an upbeat surprise.
Though Gervitz and many of his actors come from small screen backgrounds, there is nothing television-like in this adaptation, co-scripted by Jorge Duran (“Pixote,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”) The opening sequence is an exciting montage of images and sounds that announces the film’s modernist intent. Martin (Felipe Camargo), who plays piano in a nightclub, spends his days studying the subway map. First he chooses trains and stops at random, then he plunges into the metro and follows attractive young women to see if they will take his pre-planned routes. If they do, they could be the love of his life.
It doesn’t seem like the best way to establish a meaningful relationship, especially since the game is almost impossible to win. Though he meets the sweet Tania (Daniela Escobar), a tattoo artist with an autistic daughter, and Laura (Julia Lemmertz), a blind writer who becomes his confidante, he remains dissatisfied. One day, he becomes fascinated by a striking woman dressed in red, and decides to break his own rules. Ana (Maria Luisa Mendonca) is a neurotic model even crazier than he is. Story starts slowing down as they chase each other around Sao Paulo and down south to a town they never reach. Meanwhile, Martin discovers Ana packs a gun in her evening bag and harbors terrible secrets.
Although Martin’s game is a readily understandable metaphor for the difficulty of finding love in the labyrinthine modern world, on a more realistic level it’s not clear why he rejects the warm affection of Tania and her daughter or shirks Laura’s obvious interest, or conversely why he falls for the mannered Ana. Such are the whims of men. The film does hold a nicely wrought twist in its last act, one that makes the foregoing scenes less like random choices and more like real people struggling to build something solid.
Both Escobar and Lemmertz (the sexy journalist in “A Fit of Rage”) sketch strong femmes, albeit with little chance to express their emotions, while Mendonca radiates a psychologically complex nature beneath her kooky dark lady appeal. As the lonely, average-looking guy who passionately plays Villa-Lobos in a piano bar, Camargo matches her in ambiguity and extreme behavior.
For once, all the tech work converges in the service of the story. Cinematographer Lauro Escorel keeps the camera moving through some imaginative metro set ups, while Manga Campion’s rapid-fire editing gives the story a nervous rhythm. Luiz Henrique Xavier’s score plays an important role in building a playful tension fraught with danger.