By Jeremy Carr.
“Love has reasons that even reason can’t understand.” This is what the father of soccer star Diamantino Matamouros once told his son, as recalled by the sporting prodigy in a benign, resigned voiceover. A resonant sentiment for anyone who has experienced the uncertainties of an unforeseen and unpredictable romance, it aptly correlates to the absurdities – amorous and otherwise – at the artfully earnest heart of Diamantino, the feature debut from directors Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt.
Taking cosmic notions of inscrutability quite literally, the opening of this 2018 Portuguese film drifts through colorful, sparkling images of space, moving toward earth and ultimately arriving at a teeming soccer stadium. There, Diamantino (Carloto Cotta) again evokes the words of his father, who had called the facility a “new cathedral” where the new Michelangelo – the superstar athlete – demonstrates his art. What Diamantino does on the field is “sublime” according to the infinitely supportive elder Matamouros, who also says his boy gives fans, indeed an entire nation, the invaluable faith in something superior. And part of what makes Portuguese striker Diamantino such an exceptional soccer player is his ability to enter into his own transcendental world, to sweep aside the noise of the crowd and the threat of the opponent and to engage in a vibrant fantasy, brilliantly illustrated by Abrantes and Schmidt, where the only thing surrounding him are large, fluffy Pekingese puppies, all enveloped in a cotton candy cloud of pink powder.
That’s how it usually works, anyway. Down one point in the World Cup Final against Sweden, however, the puppies and their accompanying aura fade away. Distracted and disturbed by this turn of events, Diamantino appears to get tripped up (or simply falls) and is granted a penalty kick, an act at which he has a 95% success rate. He has the chance to tie the game and send it to overtime. But he fails.
Things only get worse (and weirder) from there. Diamantino’s father suffers a fatal stroke, likely induced by the wrath of Diamantino’s perpetually angry twin sisters, deviously played by Anabella and Margarida Moreira, who rebuke their brother for his on-field failure. Not long after, having been moved by an earlier encounter with a small boat of refugees, who are brought aboard his luxurious yacht in a marked contrast of socioeconomic disparity, Diamantino, in his post-game despair, decides to redeem himself by doing good in an undertaking larger than sport. Despite his admitted ignorance of anything outside soccer, the affable simpleton decides to adopt one of these unfortunate “fugees.”
Unbeknownst to Diamantino, though, this opportunity peculiarly presents itself courtesy of his two malicious siblings. On top of their nefarious banking practices, which involve the covert removal of Diamantino’s wealth, taken out of his hands and allocated to offshore accounts, the girls are immersed in a get-even-richer scheme concerning the genetic cloning of their physically impeccable, ordinarily skilled brother. The financial wrangling prompts the investigation of Portuguese secret service agents Lucia (Maria Leite) and Aisha (Cleo Tavares), who also happen to be lovers. Hearing of Diamantino’s adoption desire, these two concoct an implausible plot whereby Aisha goes undercover as a refugee named “Rahim,” a teenage boy(!) from Mozambique, while Lucia poses as the nun who arranges the adoption, all in an effort to get information about the apparent money laundering, which they presume Diamantino is spearheading.
Parisian-born Portuguese actor Cotta, who has appeared in several films and many television series, projects an effectual sensitivity throughout Diamantino, from his anxiousness facing down the goalie for the fateful penalty kick to his tearful expression at the disastrous result. His grief is compounded by the barrage of social media putdowns and the ruthless replays he endures on sports TV; there is also the erroneous suggestion that his father’s stroke was caused by his competitive collapse. A tragically solitary character, essentially alone save for Mittens, his pet cat, Diamantino’s outward narcissistic indulgence masks a genuine desire for companionship, which manifests itself in his current existential, paternal crisis (Diamantino’s production design is embellished by childish touches of domestic simplicity and images of Diamantino himself all over his house, notably on his matching pillow cases).
Carefree, compassionate, and exceedingly naïve, Diamantino picks up Rahim in a flamboyant yellow Lamborghini – Lamborghini also being, oddly enough, the name of the doctor conducting the genetic experiments – and drives the “boy” home in a joyous montage accompanied by an ironic, nevertheless touching use of Donna Lewis’s infectious 1996 pop ditty “I Love You Always Forever.” It’s the film’s finest, most charmingly unaffected sequence. At his elaborately remote mansion, where sisters Sonia and Natasha are in the process of butchering a pig, splattered with blood and knives at the ready in case their hostile potential wasn’t clear already, Diamantino offers Rahim a charming, idyllic life. Although Lucia and Aisha mock his kindness, such is the affecting, guileless performance of Cotta that he elicits instant and endearing sympathy.
Co-directors Schmidt (an American) and Abrantes (Portuguese) devise a wildly convoluted arrangement of narrative idiosyncrasies, incorporating deceitful nationalists at the Ministry of Propaganda, Diamantino’s struggle with the hermaphroditic side effects of his treatment, the strained relationship between Lucia and Aisha, an abundance of Nutella crêpes, unexpected love, inevitable heartbreak, betrayal, and one comic-to-tragic turn after another as Rahim and Diamantino grow progressively close, in surprising ways, while everything else begins to crumble beneath their feet. Diamantino’s voiceover implies his knowledge of what is happening behind his back and what will befall those involved (even if he still refers to Rahim as his “son,” which he soon knows better and soon surpasses in terms of physical affection), but with so many points of compelling revelation, Diamantino seldom seems settled.
Beautifully shot in Super 16mm by cinematographer Charles Ackley Anderson (just his second feature), Diamantino has a good deal of fun with its flights of fancy – primarily those giant, downy dogs – but the surrealistic moments are equaled if not surpassed by the film’s contemporary resonance. Aside from Diamantino’s resemblance to real-life Portuguese soccer idol Cristiano Ronaldo, there are obvious allusions to Brexit, to the global surveillance state, to immigration, and to a striking xenophobia that would be wholly humorous if it weren’t so accurate (making Portugal great again complete with hypothetical wall).
Striking though they may be, however, few of these topical inclusions land with any durable concentration. It’s all a bit much for the film’s 96-minute runtime, especially because the film’s heartwarming core, the increasingly complex relationship between Rahim/Aisha and Diamantino, is intermittently abandoned until a satisfyingly quixotic payoff. Still, one can’t fault Abrantes and Schmidt for lack of trying. Diamantino is ambitious all the same. It’s vivid and emotive, loosely prescient, and undeniably imaginative.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the forthcoming collections David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, and ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press.