An overworked programmer at the Uruguayan Cinematheque finds himself distracted from the job by a woman in Federico Veiroj’s delectable “A Useful Life.” What begins as a seemingly dry work directed purely at cinephiles evolves almost invisibly into a droll romantic comedy, and marks a clear step forward for Veiroj (“Acne”). The combo of subject matter and a light comic tone has already ensured a steady festival tour following the pic’s limited local bow in August, but Euro arthouses will hold the key to a useful commercial life.
Filmed in color and printed in black-and-white (with prints masked for an Academy aspect ratio), pic launches with a late-’50s/early-’60s retro feel, including complete production roll before the first shot by an excerpt from a rarely heard symphony by Uruguayan composer Eduardo Fabini.
The sight of a FedEx package being opened roots the film back in the present. Inside the package are a set of screeners from Iceland, with programmer Jorge (real-life film critic Jorge Jellinek) and Cinematheque director Martinez (the institution’s actual former topper Manuel Martinez) dividing the spoils.
Such lovingly observed details of a programmer’s daily work run through the film’s first half, lending the mistaken impression that things will be set purely to the taste of hardcore film lovers. An opening title card cautions that the action in “A Useful Life” doesn’t recreate working conditions at the cinematheque in Uruguay’s capital city, Montevideo. However, Veiroj applies a realist touch to Jorge’s workaday world, whether it’s searching for reels in the (hardly climate-controlled) print library, tracking the steadily declining membership roster, meeting with Martinez and staff to discuss problems or promoting the cinematheque program on local radio.
In moment that will eventually change his life, Jorge notices Paola (Paola Venditto) a university law school professor, attending the cinematheque. Quietly, the lumpen and bearish Jorge begins his pursuit of Paola, and the quest takes the film out of the drab workplace and into the street. He gets a haircut — attentively shot with effective and wordless humor — and wanders onto the university campus. The sense of Jorge discovering a new way of life is both subtle (taking time to watch carp in a reflecting pool) and wacky (posing as a class instructor and lecturing on the universality of lying).
A lovely interlude where Jorge taps his inner Gene Kelly by dancing on a grand staircase somehow leads naturally into his encounter with Paola.
There’s a certain perfection to Veiroj’s conceit that’s entirely winning and convincing, due in no small part to Jellinek, whose character evolves from a shy, ungainly creature into a man on the town. This certainly marks one of the most dominant and sustained lead performances by a professional film critic; it’s part of a recent phenomenon that includes Glenn Kenny in Steven Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience” and Mark Peranson in Albert Serra’s “Birdsong.”
However, a particularly charming moment that captures the film’s cinematic heart and soul is one of the few scenes without Jorge: Martinez begins a projection of Erich von Stroheim’s “Greed” and sits beside the rickety projector, speaking the Spanish translation of the silent classic’s intertitle cards and dialogue over an intercom piped into the theater.
Co-screenwriter Arauco Hernandez’ lensing manages a low-contrast black-and-white image that appears remarkably close to the look prevalent in 1950s Italian cinema, with slight touches that keep things contemporary. Pic’s brevity is a lesson in knowing when to end in a way that leaves auds wanting more.