Release date: January 13th, 2012
Certificate (UK): U
Running time: 70 minutes
Country of origin: Uruguay
Original language: Spanish with English subtitles
Director: Federico Veiroj
Writers: Ines Bortagaray, Gonzalo Delgado, Arauco Hernandez, Federico Veiroj
Cast: Jorge Jellinek, Manuel Martinez Carril, Paola Venditto
2011 and the beginning of 2012 have thrown up a wealth of films that are in love with the movies. From Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani’s giallo Amer, to Martin Scorsese and Michel Hazanavicius looking back to cinema’s origins in Hugo and The Artist, globally filmmakers seem to be expressing their love of the medium.
Next up in this trend is a funny little Uruguayan film that has finally reached the UK having been submitted for consideration in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 83rd Academy Awards.
It is incredibly brief at only 70 minutes and rather than paying homage to film history, it looks at the decline of an art house cinema in 21st century Montevideo called the Cinemateca.
The plot, or what there is of it, sees Jorge (played by real life film critic Jorge Jellinek) as the manager of the cinema. He not only mans the cinema’s front doors welcoming customers, but also does the books, fixes the seats and acts as compère when they have special guests to introduce films.
He also presents a regular radio show on the local radio where he informs listeners of what the Cinematica has coming soon. It becomes clear that the cinema is in trouble, the reasons perhaps perfectly highlighted by the esoteric monologue of Jorge’s colleague Martinez (Manuel Martinez Carril) when he contributes on the radio show or the season of unknown Icelandic films that they are preparing for. When it closes, Jorge is cast out unto the world and decides to go and court the law teacher, Paola (Paola Venditto), whom he has a crush on from her frequenting the Cinematica.
Whether or not Jorge will be able to manage the world outside the cinema is something the audience will have to decide for themselves.
As I have said, the film is very slight. Coming in at just under 70 minutes, there is really not a lot of action or a lot of plot for the viewer to sink their teeth into. The opening half an hour or so are given over entirely to seeing the devotion of Jorge and his colleagues, to the Cinematica and what it takes to run such an art house cinema.
We see the everyday scenes of Jorge moving slowly through the auditorium, trying each seat and then tightening those which feel wobbly; we see Martinez in the projection room reading out the voice-over for a film through a micro-phone in real time; we see the introduction of a young Uruguayan film-maker to an almost empty sounding theatre. There are some lovely moments here where we can see the lengths that Jorge et al must go to in order to keep their cinema as a bastion of cinematic enlightenment even if their audience are perhaps not particularly interested in the series of Icelandic auteurs.
It is a touching and relatively enjoyable half an hour as we are also introduced to Paola, who Jorge seems to have feelings for and who turns down his offer of a coffee as she leaves the latest screening which he recommended to her. At the same time, the lack of any real plot or actually any particular character development may alienate some viewers and the intricacies of running the cinematheque may appeal primarily to those who already find the subject interesting.
When the cinema closes, we then follow Jorge as he begins to reconnect with the real world whilst waiting for Paola to finish work. He visits a library, has a haircut and makes a brief and comic stop where he pretends to be a substitute teacher at the university and begins preaching to the students about the nature of the world and the notion of lying. Despite his attempts though, he is clearly still obsessed by the world of the cinema – his hour of waiting filled by things that could only really happen on the screen – and as he waits the final moments for Paola, and his own happy ending, he dances cinematically on the steps of the university whilst a rousing score plays – perhaps in his head.
This is a nicely shot film in crisp monochrome echoing back to the kinds of films that Jorge will have fallen in love with and what will have lead to him to his 25-year career running a cinema; having said that, it is not shot in the style of Hollywood classics but in a relatively grainy and grim way with static shots watching characters going about their lives in near silence. Some shots are a little drab, others are truly beautiful.
The film is clearly aimed at a cine-literate audience although that is not so say that one must be in Jorge’s mould to enjoy it. It is witty and melancholic and for the most part is about being forced to let go of the extreme cinephilia that can be no substitute for the real life that Jorge has missed. It may perhaps have benefited from looking more at why the Cinematica is failing or giving real time and thought to Jorge’s adjustment to the world after its closing – either of these may have added a little more heft to the piece.
A Useful Life is sweet and enjoyable, but it is most certainly a trifle and one that would not appeal to all tastes.
Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.
His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.