Infinite Football

Infinite Football is centred on a middle-aged man whose name we never get to know. In the extended interview that opens the film, he talks about two accidents he had in his youth. In the first, during a football match at school, he got injured trying to protect the ball from the entire rival team that had ganged up to retrieve it at the edge of the indoor court. Ruling him out of a coveted job at the forestry department, this injury led him to take up a blue-collar job at a machine factory, where he had his second mishap. Believing that his life could have turned out different had the first incident not occurred, he decides to come up with an alternate ruleset for football that restricts players from crowding around the ball.

Trust Corneliu Porumboiu to forge out of such thin material a rich, layered exploration of the mechanics of human aspirations and the stories we tell ourselves. In many ways, Infinite Football is a companion piece to The Second Game (2014), where a shared session of football watching between father and son becomes a springboard for deeper reflection on family, art and sport aesthetics. This new film, too, bears a deceptively modest appearance: an almost a-thematic series of vignettes of the man interacting with the Porumboiu, filmed soberly with a handful of simple camera setups. But as these conversations unfold, the film spirals outwards and upwards, opening up this banal story of an individual’s private preoccupation into a universal study of human search for meaning. At the end of the film, this man’s ridiculous obsession with football’s rules becomes the most important question that could exist.

Like several characters populating Ceaușescu’s fictional works, the protagonist of Infinite Football is a small-time bureaucrat in post- Ceaușescu Romania. In the third of the film’s seven parts, we see him at forenoon in his office describing his failed attempts to emigrate to the United States. He reconciles the jarring contradiction between his unconventional, free-time pursuit and the soul-crushing banality of his day job by, obviously, drawing parallels to the double lives of superheroes, who must also shroud themselves in utter anonymity to be able to continue their crusade. The monologue is interrupted by a pair of colourful visitors – an octogenarian woman fighting for her land seized by the Communist regime accompanied by a smooth-talking chess teacher almost too good to be true – who must now face the familiar bureaucratic ineptitude. This seemingly-accidental quintessentially Porumbiou detour, in fact, becomes one with the film, because it underscores not only the contrast between the man’s mission and his everyday reality, but the similarity between his quest for coining arbitrary sporting rules and the silly government office protocol he’s supposed to uphold at work.

It’s so that this description of a personal fixation takes on a metaphysical dimension. The man continuously asserts that he wants to restrict player movement in order to increase ball movement. Why though? We can only guess. This absurd, and I daresay characteristically male, preoccupation with framing and constantly refining arbitrary rules and then pursuing excellence within these arbitrary rules, has something Sisyphean about it, a reflection perhaps of eternal truths. In a subsequent scene, appreciating a photograph from Porumboiu’s wedding, the protagonist’s aged father pontificates about the need for having life goals – work, family, wealth – without which existence becomes meaningless. The point doesn’t have to be stressed any further. It isn’t.

Like the filmmaker’s father in The Second Game, the protagonist of Infinite Football, in specific ways, is also an artist figure, and Porumboiu’s film clearly aims at such an equivalence. Seeking to single-handedly redefine the rules of the most famous sport in the world, and scribbling away diagrams to this effect almost in complete ignorance of the weight of history, the man unwittingly locates himself in the long line of genius primitive artists such as Facteur Cheval, Douanier Rousseau and Nek Chand. The process of coming up with a set of rules for a sport has a parallel with the process of art creation: a dialectical progression of proposal, contradiction and course correction. The protagonist, very consciously, treats the football field like a canvas with recognizable energy flows that could be modulated by setting the horizontal movement of players against the vertical movement of the ball. The dilemma his ever-changing set of rules for his new game – Football 2.0, Football 2.1, Football 2.9, Football Infinite – poses is the same facing an artist: when is a work of art said to be complete?

The film breathes freely, its conceptual rigour only enhanced by the relaxed quality of its organization. Porumboiu aerates the work well with long takes and charming shots of little import. At one point, we see him from behind standing at a bookshelf, thumbing through some volumes. It means nothing, but it feels at home in the film. Nor is the filmmaker afraid of sounding pretentious. In the final shot of the film – a very slow track along an empty road on a wintry dawn – is overlaid with a monologue of the protagonist talking about religion: the etymology of biblical terms and their social function. This attempt at a philosophical justification of his life-project is intended to be either glorification or a critique of itself: if the part of the impulse behind all art is to fashion order from the essential chaos of nature, and that of religion to furnish rituals, norms and frameworks to induce cooperation and harmony among men, couldn’t the obstinate quest to change the rules of a team sport just as well be characterized as a religious or an artistic mission? À vous de juger.