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Film Review: ‘Diamantino’

Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt rustle up one of the year's most singular debuts with this winningly bizarre, genre-melding political satire.

Director:
Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt
With:
Carloto Cotta, Cleo Tavares, Anabela Moreira, Margarida Moreira

1 hour 36 minutes

The pro-European Union lobby just got the silliest, sexiest cinematic endorsement it could hope for in “Diamantino,” and that’s merely one of the surprises nested in Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt’s deranged satire — sure to remain the freshest blast of gonzo comic energy at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Part loopily queer sci-fi thriller, part faux-naive political rallying cry, glued together with candyfloss clouds of romantic reverie, it’s a film best seen with as little forewarning as possible: To go in blind is to be carried along by its irrational tumble of events as blissfully and buoyantly as its empty-headed soccer-star protagonist. The sheer outrageous singularity of “Diamantino” is sure to make it a hot property on the festival circuit, enrapturing and alienating audiences in equal measure; adventurous distributors will want to get in on the ground floor with a potential cult object.

Portuguese-American duo Abrantes and Schmidt make one glitter-encrusted calling card of a feature debut here, though they nearly overplay their oddball hand in the film’s opening seconds, as an onscreen disclaimer assures that what we are about to see is a work of fiction, bearing only a coincidental resemblance to any real-life “people, places, products or giant puppies.” “Diamantino” is best when it forgoes such cutesiness and just cuts straight to the crazy, as with those promised puppies: a bounding pack of moppish fluffballs who invade the soccer pitch in a peachy fog of My Little Pony sparkledust every time Portugal’s star striker Diamantino (Carloto Cotta, the dashing star of Miguel Gomes’ “Tabu”) has a shot on goal.

At least, that’s what happens in his head — a pretty, echoing space in which, it turns out, not much else happens at all. Abetted by Cotta’s delightfully spry, guileless performance, the film deliciously upends society’s godly elevation of the sport’s primo uomos. Diamantino has the matchless footwork, the marble-carved physique and blingy fortune of Portuguese idol Cristiano Ronaldo (“coincidental resemblance” my foot — even his ruler-parted undercut is identical), but he’s a wholly incapable innocent, as uncomprehending of sex as he is of world affairs. Dumbly exploited and abused by his fairytale-wicked twin sisters (Anabela and Margarida Moreira, a joint scream) after his coddling father suddenly drops dead, he’s as vulnerable as Mittens, the pet kitten on whom he lavishes all his affection.

That’s something the public finally learns when he misses a crucial penalty kick in the World Cup final, his ensuing sobs triggering a career-melting public backlash and loss of mojo — gone from his head are the joyous giant puppies, replaced only by unfamiliar self-doubt and loneliness. Just the cue, then, for a sinister cabal angling for Portugal’s withdrawal from the European Union to wheedle the fallen hero into being their campaign mascot, shilling empty promises to “make Portugal great again” while pleading that he, like Portugal, “deserves a second chance.” Gleefully silly “Diamantino” may be, but it also mordantly captures the tone of recent, surging far-right rhetoric across the continent: As it spirals into a demented mad-scientist B-movie with the anti-EU contingent as its cartoon villains, the film loudly broadcasts its political stance without once extracting tongue from cheek.

That’s merely a portion of “Diamantino’s” busy crazy-quilt plotting, which also finds room for cloak-and-dagger hijinks courtesy of lesbian undercover agent Aisha (Cleo Tavares), on a mission to investigate the star’s shady finances by posing as a male teenage refugee from Mozambique. (“Everyone is kicking refugees out and you bring one in,” sneer  Diamantino’s sisters — a second strike against right-wing insularity in this unexpectedly topical affair.) All of which makes as much sense as anything else in a mad-libs narrative that also finds room for genderqueer seduction and light body horror. If “Zoolander” had been directed in distracted, alternating stages by Gregg Araki and early-career Almodóvar — well, it still wouldn’t be anything quite resembling this, but there’s a starting point.

With this much colorful clutter, unevenness is practically the point: Some promising ideas comes off half-baked, while other, thinner ones play as, well, very baked indeed. The growingly tender relationship between Diamantino and Aisha could stand to push sexual boundaries a bit more recklessly, though the film’s improbably sweet gentleness of nature is perhaps its most surprising trump card.

Mixing grainy 16mm passages with lurid oil slicks of advertising-style varnish, and merging deliberately shoddy practical effects with puffy CGI dreamscapes, the film’s aesthetic is made to seem as wild and haphazard as its storytelling, though Abrantes and Schmidt — both accomplished short filmmakers with lofty festival-circuit credentials — have plainly conceived and designed even its apparent visual glitches with the utmost love and care.

Cinematographer Charles Ackley Anderson rolls fluidly with the madness, while the film’s witty costume and production design (courtesy of Bruno Duarte and Cypress Cook) are perfectly tailored to evoke Diamantino’s simultaneously cloistered and cliched ideas of celebrity status, right down to his hideously photo-personalized bed linen. Also smartly matching the bitty magpie formation of the whole enterprise is a hilariously random soundtrack of pop and EDM novelties that gain curious resonance when used glaringly out of place and context: Only in the up-is-down world of “Diamantino” could Donna Lewis’s cream-cheese slab of mid-’90s dreampop “I Love You Always Forever” briefly seem a soaring anthem of the heart. “Love has reasons that even reason can’t understand,” muses Diamantino in voiceover at one point; so does this lovably ludicrous film.

Film Review: 'Diamantino'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Critics' Week), May 11, 2018. Running time: 96 MIN. 

Production: (Portugal-France-Brazil) A Les Films du Belier, Maria & Mayer production in co-production with Syndrome Films. (International sales: Charades, Paris.) Producers: Justin Taurand, Maria João Mayer, Daniel van Hoogstraten.

Crew: Directors, screenplay: Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt. Camera (color, widescreen): Charles Ackley Anderson. Editors: Abrantes, Schmidt, Raphaëlle Martin-Holger. Music: Ulysse Klotz, Adriana Holtz.

With: Carloto Cotta, Cleo Tavares, Anabela Moreira, Margarida Moreira, Carla Maciel, Filipe Vargas, Manuela Moura Guedes, Joana Barrios, Maria Leite. (Portuguese dialogue)

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