Labeling Eryk Rocha’s terrific “Sunday Ball” a sports documentary, because it focuses on soccer, is like calling “Grey Gardens” a madwomen documentary for featuring a couple of loonies. Stunningly shot and marvelously edited to capture the rhythms of the game, the pic transcends its subject much in the way Roger Angell’s essays on baseball offer rare pleasures even to those uninterested in the game. Rocha, son of Glauber Rocha, continues to quietly make his mark as one of the most interesting young Brazilian helmers on the scene, and fests should be clamoring to get “Ball” in their corner.
It’s not coincidental that Rocha (“Passerby,” “Pachamama”) is teaming for the first time with d.p. Leo Bittencourt (“Hill of Pleasures”), whose sophomore docu as director, “Satellites,” also dealt with soccer, though the two have distinctly different helming styles. “Sunday Ball” ennobles its subjects without losing any of the excitement of the game: It pairs a painterly sense of composition with Renato Vallone’s first-rate editing, accompanied by delightfully unpredictable music selections. The film isn’t concerned with the nuts and bolts of the matches, but rather with their balletic energy, presented almost in the manner of cadenzas.
Around the same time the World Cup was being fought for throughout Brazil, 14 teams from the Rio favelas, each taking the name of a major club, were getting together on Sundays to compete in their own tournament. At the docu’s start, the finals were already decided: Geracao (from the Matriz favela) vs. Juventude (from the Sampaio favela). An establishing shot of an empty field — more dirt than soccer pitch — comes to life as a man marks off the boundary lines in chalk.
The players’ arrival is shot in slow-mo, like a stately introit, leading to snippets of the expected: Coaches give pep talks in the locker rooms (“Work hard, but with joy!”), the “Our Father” is recited in a pregame huddle. Once the match begins, the energy picks up, with driving chants briefly steering it forward. It’s easy to lose track of the ensuing goals and blocks because clearly Rocha’s interest isn’t in who wins, but how each play ignites the field and the impassioned fans on the sidelines.
Moments almost out of time act as mini-vignettes, such as a scene with a poker-faced referee surrounded by belligerent teammates. Expert framing, combined with studied consideration of focal lengths, almost give such scenes the appearance of video installations (but of the best kind). Rocha’s technique enhances the emotional charge, dignifying the game and insisting on its vital place within the community. Light years away from the corporate shenanigans of FIFA, far removed from the commercialization scarring the professionals, “Sunday Ball” exults in the vigor of the game, and the infectious zeal of the onlookers.
As he’s proven in previous pics, Rocha has a sophisticated appreciation of sound design, and here the layering of noise and tracks can be exhilarating. That’s partly thanks to the soundscape and partly to the unusual musical choices, incorporating Puccini and Wagner arias, excerpts from Hector Villa-Lobos, and composer Jorge Amorim’s percussive rhythms.