2005Director: Roberto Gervitz
Cast: Felipe Carmago, Maria Luisa Mendonça , Júlia Lemmertz
t seems if a director slaps a few shots of modern-looking skyscrapers amidst vignettes about romantic ideals dashed away in an urban setting, everyone clamors to tag him a “modernist” with all the due piety in the world. It means we should take this film seriously. It means the auteur has something to say. But like all modalities of expression, even the most profound can be watered down until it’s a diluted mess.
What’s intriguing about Underground Game, a Brazilian effort by Roberto Gervitz is that the film is adapted from Manuscript Found in a Pocket, a short story by Julio Cortazar, the same Argentine author who inspired Antonioni’s Blow Up with the short story Las Babas del Diablo. The director confesses early on in his Q&A; session that much of the narrative points were pot-lucked by himself or co-writer Jorge Duran, and the film reads that way.
Cortazar’s short story apparently leaves Gervitz with a single character, Martin, wandering the subways of Sao Paolo, following women, hoping their course in the labyrinth of life matches his own. Once his predetermined path corresponds to that of his lucky lady, he will fall in love and evermore be satisfied, living out the storied fable of perfect love in the modern state. But the stories about the particular women he follows were added by Gervitz and company, and I can’t help but suspect that he should have left poor Cortazar alone.
One woman Martin delights in but can’t “love” has an autistic child, defined in the film as that which may or may not have a capacity to love. It would be a nice foil to Martin’s character if it weren’t so dreadfully cooked up. Another blind author creates the world around her by finishing people’s stories she hears on the subway trains. She can miraculously feel Martin staring at her and knows him well enough to guess his very core in a series of conversations, masquerading as art-house dialogue, possibly borrowed from an Idiot’s Guide to Self-Help.
When the main female character enters the film, she looks dashing in her form-fitting red dress as she bounces along, hiding from ne’er-do-wells. Up until this point, my chagrin for egregious female sexuality shots had been put on hold, but when she enters the frame, over and over again shot to accentuate her lips, her eyes, her breasts, you wonder how much the character could possibly be looking—and if it might just be the director.
All that aside, the two find themselves in a series of “dates” where they keep repeating how little they know about each other. The sequence when they flee her apartment to the beach is so confused that the director resorts to a storm in the distance and sexual tension in the pool hall and bedroom to keep the audience at bay. The entire contemporary critique fizzles away as we witness Underground Game the telenovela. She keeps dark secrets from him that the audience comes to realize in a huge jump of perspective. He keeps just the one: he really likes subways and women. Eventually she calls him out and he says little; they cry a bit, they each shed some blood, and then a shocker happens: they get together.
The stage was set well enough. Martin’s underground system was straddling the line of culturally acceptable behavior in that nicely noir fashion. Accepting his actions as normal came readily enough, as was accepting his sexual activity with the autist’s mother or a tattoo artist covered in body tattoos and forgotten by the artist she once loved. The blind author reveals the damage to her eye, an accident of this world rather than congenital, another reminder of the perils of modern living. Each of these characters could have emerged from a Cronenberg film, but seem forced under Gervitz’s direction.
It’s his reliance on the love story to achieve narrative satisfaction that makes this film unsatisfying. Gervitz started with a modernist tale of impressive stature, and mixed it with a melodrama containing predictable emotional devices. He cheapened the depth with a bunch of fluff and raised high the roof beams of serious intent. If modernist moviemaking has become so obviously genre-fied, I fear Underground Game won’t be the last of these films, all too ready to accept their own gravitas and the accolades of the horn-rimmed faithful.
By: John Hibey
Published on: 2006-05-12