A Story for the Oksmans: Sergio Oksman’s "O Futebol"

A father, a son, a camera, and the World Cup in Brazil.
Michael Pattison

MUBI is showing Sergio Oksman's O Futebol (2015) June 6 - July 5, 2016 in the UK.

“Tomorrow is Friday. Time has hardly moved.”

—   Simão, O Futebol

“The World Cup doesn’t pay my bills.”

            — Simão, O Futebol 

In Sergio Oksman’s O Futebol, the closest we come to experiencing the deafening soundscape of a competitive international soccer match is during a drive-in carwash. The cacophonous rumble, the thunderous seat-banging, the polyrhythmic bass drums of the proverbial Samba band—only, this is none of those, is instead the formidably rapid thud-thud of a rotating sill brush proceeding front-to-back over the roof of a stationary automobile. As the sill brush spins out of frame, its decibel grows to a hailstorm on metal, which is made all the more ferocious by the imperturbably still accompanying image. Through the vantage point of a symmetrically framed, forward-looking two-shot from the car’s central backseat, we see two men, a middle-aged man and his father, sitting side by side. They are not so much transfixed by this mechanical motion as merely content in their lack of conversation—which renders the would-be magic of the operation mundane, routine. Though it might have 40 years earlier been the kind of adventure by which a man wows his son, the charm here has decidedly dimmed.

O Futebol is an investigation into things unsaid, forgotten, lost. As Oksman’s own opening voiceover explains, the Madrid-based filmmaker returned to his hometown São Paulo in April 2013, a year before Brazil was set to host the FIFA World Cup, in order to reconnect with his father, Simão, for the first time in more than two decades. A year later he returns again, to record himself watching international football’s most famous tournament from start to finish with his dad. It’s an understandable choice: the World Cup, which is bound to a distinct, month-long narrative of its own, provides just the kind of structuring device by which an estranged father-son bond might be successfully re-initiated. This is a sporting spectacle enjoyed the world over, through which the very notion of masculinity and fatherhood, of territorialism and nationhood (and many more besides), are performed and contested. Oksman’s back-to-basics ploy, etched out with co-scenarist Carlos Muguiro, is one to which many males (sons and dads especially) will relate. There’s more than a shade of Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Second Game (2014).

Something’s amiss, however. To begin with, the onscreen appearance of dates and match-ups (“12 June 2014: Brazil v. Croatia”) grounds Sergio and Simão in a specific time and space. But these are less intertitles, less chapter-headings, than sporadic, stop-start ideas. The thought of attending an actual game with his son—for which he’d likely need time off from the small electronics shop he owns—makes Simão grouchy. If the first date-and-match inscription imports a sense of expectation and structure—which will allow us to trace the evolution of Sergio and Simão’s bond against the fate of, say, the Brazilian national team—it gradually becomes apparent that such textual signifiers will only help us grasp ellipses, a sense of time missed more than time spent.

It’s like one of those foldout score-sheets, the go-to giveaway of every newspaper at the start of a major football tournament, which allows enthusiasts to fill in the details of each match as it unfolds. Though Oksman’s inscriptions even boast the score boxes of such charts, they are here left empty—as if the director’s own hopes of recording an event to remember are already halfway to being forgotten. If its starting premise is about gleaning something from nothing, O Futebol is also a work about coming to terms with finding nothing after a long search. Most obviously, this is manifested in Simão himself, who is seemingly less than forthcoming when probed about his past. “There’s nothing more to say, it’s been forty years,” he remarks impatiently upon being asked about his old favorite brand of cigarettes. Later, he cuts short another advance down memory lane: “Is he still an announcer?” Sergio asks of a football commentator from yesteryear. “No,” Simão replies, “he’s dead.”  

This nothing-from-something displacement is also writ large on the streets of São Paulo itself. Though sports channels and other media coverage drown the World Cup in color and kinetic energy, Oksman spends much of his time driving or being driven around a city that is eerily devoid of life, as in that empty shot of Elevado Presidente Costa e Silva—better known as the Minhocão (“Big worm”)—the controversial highway-cum-public park that has since 1971 cut through two miles of São Paulo’s urban neighborhoods like a concrete sword. One of the protagonists remarks that this “doesn’t feel like a World Cup,” a sentiment reflected in cinematographer André Brandão’s relatively muted color palette, and in an imagistic rigidity (exquisite symmetries, precise grids) that a vibrantly unpredictable sports event might otherwise preclude.  

As Oksman captures it, the World Cup is consumed and enjoyed here not as some citywide fever dream, but in tiny clusters. Simão drinks in a greasy corner café spouting throwaway trivia to an out-of-frame patron, as if the marrow of any meaningful memory is formed not in blood bonds or other chemistries, but in the proud retention of meaningless data. Elsewhere, drearily-lit lanchonetes are framed alongside the silhouetted grids of electricity cables against a mauve dusk. Most amusingly, the closest Sergio and Simão come to attending an actual match is to park within earshot of Itaquera Stadium and attempt to follow affairs by judging the tone of the crowd (“that could be a goal”). Later, a more poignant juxtaposition: as an ambulance rushes into the grounds of the Sancta Maggiore hospital in Pinheiros, locals celebrate a goal in the adjoining Charme do Paraíso, a snackbar whose sudden euphoria is oblivious to the more sobering image unfolding beside it.

Though O Futebol is about the emotional weight of both loss and encounter, it balances itself acutely in the spaces in between. These spaces are thematic as well as aesthetic. Is it a documentary? Is it fiction? Through all of this, Sergio and Simão are ghost actors, apparitions. When the latter suddenly dies following a heart attack, it’s startling because it feels so unforced. In literal, off-screen terms, of course, it is. But rather than fade away, the dramatic, docufiction tension stiffens, for Oksman maintains his remarkably restrained approach. Instead of milking or succumbing to reality, to the temptation of collapsing the complex boundaries he’s so far established, Oksman seems determined to remain unsentimental, to displace any of his own mourning into images that speak for themselves.

Consider that heartbreakingly simple moment in which we cut from the hospital where his father ails to Sergio himself driving the car. He’s driving, of course, as opposed to being driven. His oneness, his separation from his dad, is emphasized by the same, unchanging angle: a two-shot that is no longer a two-shot. The national flags that festoon the sad, empty streets following Brazil’s 7-1 drubbing at the hands of Germany only underscore Sergio’s sudden loneliness. The film’s most tender moment follows. Following his dad’s death, Oksman again drives through the streets, in a final one-man homage to what had in its own way been a two-man team. Responding to some commotion, he leans out of his car to ask a passing local the score.

There’s something profoundly vulnerable in this gesture, in Sergio’s persistent quest to complete what was only a half-baked ritual to begin with, and in his leaning over to ask a stranger who has no idea of the sense of loss currently defining the interior of the car. The stranger answers; in the final match of the tournament, Brazil’s emphatic conquerors Germany are ahead by only a single goal. All that excitement, that anticipation, the 7-1 dispatch of the national side as his father neared death, and now this anticlimactic end—which is so appropriate you’d be forgiven for thinking it was designed.

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