Some people believe soccer is a matter of life and death. But like legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, the lovably crestfallen Laurentiu Ginghină, subject of Corneliu Porumboiu’s wonderful, drolly humane new documentary “Infinite Football,” might assert that it’s much more important than that. Ginghină, however, is no Premier League manager, and his ambitions as a player ended more than 30 years ago, on the very spot where Porumboiu’s film begins. As he relates without rancor, but with a demeanor that could not be more hangdog, during a friendly game on a slushy outdoor pitch that has been repurposed in the intervening years, Ginghină was tackled so hard his fibula snapped.
Just a year later, he tells us from floor of the disused factory where he used to work, his tibia shattered. Most people might take these misfortunes as a cue for a lifetime of fervent fandom at most, but not this mid-level functionary in Romania’s labyrinthine civic bureaucracy! With the ardor of the dedicated hobbyist constantly hammering and soldering in the garage, Ginghină has spent a good portion of his lifetime’s leisure tinkering with the sport at its most basic level, altering its rules to solve problems perhaps only he really sees.
Perhaps his injuries are the reason that his focus is on “freeing the ball” even if it means severely curtailing the range of movement of the players. “The ball is the star,” he says to Porumboiu, his friendly but skeptical interviewer, and he says it with owlish incredulity, like he can’t believe he has to state such a patently obvious fact. In his hands, the Beautiful Game (“version 2.0,” though he acknowledges the possibility of versions 2.9, 3.0 even 4.0) threatens to become quite ugly, overloaded with unenforceable rules, criss-crossed with new marker lines and, oh yes, also the pitch is eight-sided now. But Ginghină doesn’t see it like that. The dog-eared magnetic chart he uses to explain his strategy seems lovely to him, a profound puzzle he’s constantly on the verge of solving.
Of all the key Romanian New Wave directors, Porumboiu (“12:08 East of Bucharest,” “The Treasure,” less accessible football doc “The Second Game”) always had the slyest wit, and the most pervasive sense of the absurd. It’s what makes his films so open to allegorical political interpretation, and here it’s easy to read parallels between the nation’s troubled experience of authoritarianism and Ginghină’s obsessive pursuit of a perfectly ordered yet perfectly liberated game of soccer.
Yet soccer ain’t the half of it. The longest portion is set in Ginghină’s almost comically featureless office, as he relates his life story and outlines philosophies gathered, magpie-like, from an eclectic array of sources (comic books, Plato, the Book of Revelations, his study of Ancient Greek). His endearing raconteur style is one of befuddled amusement at the bad luck and bad timing that kept him from a more expansive life, and a weirdly heartbreaking acceptance of things the way they are. At one point, some petitioners come to ask for his help and Porumboiu laconically records Ginghină’s Kafkaesque attempts to put them in touch with the right department. Peter Parker and Clark Kent, to whom Ginghină wryly compares himself, never had such problems just getting their colleagues to pick up their phones.
Like those superheroes, like Ginghină, “Infinite Football” lives a double life, less actually about the sport itself than the dreams that do not get followed, yet somehow still sustain us. Some might call them delusions, but why disparage something so benign? The scene where the always slightly awkward Ginghină is most uncomfortable is when his dream comes closest to reality. A pair of five-a-side teams attempt to enact some of his suggestions, and not even he has much enthusiasm for the result. His endlessly evolving ideas for revolutionizing football are not a blueprint for a real-world solution at all. Instead they represent that intensely relatable and human place inside, where any of us, however small our lives and crushed our ambitions, can be limitless, unhobbled by injury, unfettered by ordinariness, unbounded by physics: infinite.