Dir: Corneliu Porumboiu. Romania. 2014. 97mins
Corneliu Porumboiu’s wicked sense of humour is always hidden under a heavy coat of earnest discussions, sometimes so thick that the irony risks occasionally of being lost in the process. Combined with his minimalist obsession to increasingly strip his films of excess baggage and unnecessary adornments, it limits the accessibility of his work to a relatively small crowd, since not every audience has the patience or the interest to follow him all the way.
Some critics would probably say this isn’t a real documentary but either a piece of experimental fancy or an installation.
For The Second Game (Al doilea joc) he has done away with sets, actors, scripts and any other production value…he doesn’t use even a movie camera. All his new film features is the recorded tape of a soccer game which took place in Bucharest during the winter of 1988 between the two best known teams in the country - Steaua and Dinamo - and the voice of two commentators on the soundtrack, today. That and nothing more.
The referee of that game was Adrian Porumboiu, the director’s father, while Corneliu Porumboiu, who was seven or eight at the time, explains in the opening titles that he has chosen that incident because on the eve of the match he had answered a phone call at home and was told that if he ever wants to see his father again he’d better make sure he doesn’t show up at the match.
The game itself took place under terrible weather conditions: heavy snow had been falling for a couple of hours before and no referee in his right mind would have given the okay for it nowadays. But the stadium was packed, the TV cameras were ready to go, and the enmity between Steaua (the Army team) and Dinamo (identified with the Secret Service, the Securitate), made every encounter between them too intriguing to cancel at the last moment, snow or no snow.
Twenty-five years later, Ceausescu and his regime are long gone, both teams are now in private hands, soccer is big business, and Porumboiu Sr., once one of the most respected referees in the country and in Europe, has already retired and is a successful businessman. His son, who couldn’t forget that game, managed to obtain a tape of it from the Romanian Television (RTV), to watch it again in the company of his father and listen to his comments, a quarter of a century after the event.
Minimalism couldn’t possible go much further than that. Some critics would probably say this isn’t a real documentary but either a piece of experimental fancy or an installation. Viewers who don’t care about soccer might be easily put off at the idea of having to watch a full game, from beginning to end, and an old one, to boot. But none will dispute the fact that it is an original idea.
Inbetween references to the finer points of soccer rules and decisions that were or were not correct, the father and son conversation slips in plenty of innuendoes to much more than the game. Patterns of conduct such as reporting to the Securitate after every trip abroad or having to deal with secret messengers approaching the referee to fix the game, do not apply to football alone.
The game itself, after all there is nothing else to watch here, is played on the screen from an old tape of dubious quality, taken off the live broadcast and devoid of such modern luxuries as replay, slow-motion or extreme close-ups. Typical terms applying to modern football such as strategy, technique and finesse, are irrelevant in this case, due to the foul weather.
Yet another Porumboiu exercise of pretending to say one thing while meaning another, the accompanying dialogue is the thing. At one moment, he even compares the game with his own films, quoting critics who claim “they are too slow and nothing is happening in them”. Perhaps not if you know where to look.