As Western culture moves ever closer to resembling the dystopian future envisioned by its imaginative fiction, it seems inevitable that a tale would emerge depicting a dystopian present.
What is more unlikely is that it would be a campy, queer-centric, gender-bending and transgressive social satire about the adventures of an international soccer star who wins matches with the help of imaginary giant dogs; yet that is exactly what is served up by “Diamantino,” a quirky and fantastical film that won two of its three nominations at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, and opens in Los Angeles (at the Landmark Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd) on June 28.
Written and directed by Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt, it’s the story of its title character and narrator (Carloto Cotta), a soccer-playing superstar savant whose simple-minded perspective leads him on an odyssey of discovery after a career-ending disgrace forces him to find a new purpose in his life. Looking beyond his privileged boundaries, his eyes are opened to the plight of refugees, and he longs to find a way to help them; unfortunately for him, his identical-twin sisters (Anabela and Margarida Moreira) take advantage of his good intentions and naiveté to ensnare him in a diabolical plot to embezzle his massive soccer-star fortune while tricking him into becoming the subject of genetic experimentation by a secret neo-Fascist cadre planning to overthrow the EU. Meanwhile, a young secret service officer (Cleo Tavares), tasked alongside her partner and lover (Maria Leite) with investigating allegations of financial misconduct, goes undercover as a refugee orphan in order to get closer to Diamantino, and finds herself connecting with her suspect in unexpected ways as she is drawn with him deeper into the web of intrigue and conspiracy built around the cult of his dim-witted personality.
It’s a lot for a 90-minute movie to bite off, let alone to chew properly, without being choked by the sheer volume of its appetite – or at least it would be if had been the undertaking of a mainstream Hollywood-style project, too close to the volatile cauldron of celebrity, popularity and public opinion it lampoons to take it on with any real honesty. “Diamantino” is not that movie, however. Instead, this unique co-production from Portugal, France and Brazil (the dialogue moves between Portuguese and English, with subtitles) handles it all with a light touch, distilling the weighty contemporary issues it explores – the rise of Nationalism, the weaponization of social media, and the accelerated evolution of our relationship with sexuality and gender, to name just a few – into the simple (not simplistic) threads of a trope-dependent, vaguely retro sci-fi thriller.
The result is a refreshingly off-kilter pop-candy joyride, with a glossy visual style that both masks and complements the sly cultural commentary running deep beneath its giddily banal surface. With seeming inspiration from cinematic forebears like Hitchcock, Pasolini, Jodorowsky and Roger Vadim, Abrantes and Schmidt immerse us in a viewpoint on our own world that makes it feel like a futuristic fantasy; from the hazy, cotton-candy fluff of the enormous pink puppies romping around Diamantino on the soccer field to the exotic B-movie trappings of the secret lab of the “mad scientist” into whose clutches he is eventually manipulated, everything we see has the heightened sensibility of a cinematic imagination coupled with the wide-eyed perspective of a man-child being led, like the Fool in the Tarot, along the eternal precipice of a cliff by some inner guide symbolized in canine form. Added to this mix, of course, is the more sophisticated point of view that we, the audience, bring with us, from which we can see the forces at work around our hero with the clearer eye of a more realistic, if more cynical, observer.
The ingredient that gives “Diamantino” its most potent flavor, though, arguably offers a glimmer of hope to which even the most jaded social critics among us might be able to cling. Without giving any spoilers, the pulpy narrative goes unabashedly into the territory of sexual taboo, as Diamantino’s journey leads him to discover both his erotic nature and his gender identity. It’s this aspect of the story that ultimately pulls it toward its ambiguously happy ending; by abandoning traditional sexuality, perhaps the most deeply ingrained of the binary systems that fuel the us-and-them mentality behind all the conflict of our embattled world, it suggests that the current revolution of thought and being around “normative” sex and gender roles offers a path to escape the illusion of duality that keeps our lives bound inside strictly-drawn lines most of us would secretly love to disregard.
Another layer that might go unnoticed – or at least, under-noticed – by American audiences less indoctrinated than the rest of the world into the cult of soccer, is the way “Diamantino” sends up the idolatry that surrounds its stars, and one of them in particular; the title character is a cartoon-ized fictionalization of Portuguese champ Christiano Reynoldo, down to the mass-merchandizing of his image and the accidental homoeroticism of the ad campaign for his underwear brand. Star Cotta has even said that, knowing he would be portraying a character based on Ronaldo, he embarked on a rigorous training regimen designed not to make him better at soccer, but to give him a well-defined six-pack – something for which Ronaldo is famous, and that appropriately encapsulates the fetishization of image in the world of popular culture.
That six-pack, along with other well-trained features of his physique, are certainly appreciated as part of Cotta’s screen presence, but he brings a lot more than pulchritude to the role; sexy yet sexless, the childlike innocence he projects through his charming performance is authentic enough to make us forget that Diamantino is essentially the ultimate elitist viewing the world from inside his narcissistic bubble. The twin Moreira sisters, like transplants from an unrealized John Waters project, are deliciously over-the-top in their turn as a pair of toxic Euro-socialites, and Carla Maciel is memorable as the icily alluring, wheelchair-bound radical geneticist, Dr. Lamborghini.
Of course, no one goes to a movie like “Diamantino” for the performances, but the fact that they are pitch-perfect to the film’s tricky tone goes a long way toward making sure Abrantes and Schmidt realize their vision; though they’ve employed the milieu of an exploitation film for their artful cultural allegory, they ensure that all the elements are used purposefully, from deadpan acting to low-tech special effects. Like the best pop art, their movie lulls our eyes into bland submission while it fills our brains with subliminal ideas to be examined later – or not, as we choose. “Diamantino” stands up to either approach – as an example of slightly elevated escapist fluff, it sets its own standard, but for those with a taste for something more substantial, it’s more than able to deliver the goods.