Autuerism and sports fandom aren’t as far apart from each other as the adherents of either might think. The cinephile and fan are both quick to announce their chosen favorites, accumulate vast bodies of arcane knowledge, and build peculiarly personal relationships with lofty, distant figures, Olympian personalities celebrated as much for individuality and style as sheer ability. Regarding the objects of their passions, both are equally quick to effusive tenderness and vindictive hostility. I am, of course, hardly the first to make this connection. In a 1997 article in Britain’s Neon magazine, Irish comic and then-future Black Books creator Graham Linehan penned a kind of comic fantasy envisioning film lovers as gangs of rival hooligans. “Kieslowski fans are bad enough,” decries Linehan’s narrator, a Greenaway partisan, “but when it comes to the worst of the worst, the lowest of the low, everyone agrees at the end of the day it’s the Tarkovsky mob that most deserve a kicking.”
Art and sports both contrive a space for the expression of human grace unhindered by the contingencies of daily life. For this reason, both have played host to countless instances of unspeakable humiliation and abject failure. Corneliu Porumboiu’s documentary Infinite Football begins with its subject, Laurentiu Ginghina, recounting one such inglorious moment in the vast annals of sport. Playing pick-up soccer, Ginghina fractured his fibula when being hounded by opposing players. The injury healed improperly, scuttling his plans to apply for the Forestry institute (“I dreamed of being in the middle of the forest with the animals, the wood, the trees…”). Finally, he tells a very dispiriting tale of reaggravating the injury some time later while working a factory job on New Year’s Eve, forcing him to walk six kilometers home in the cold on a broken leg. Certainly, Ginghina’s steady insistence implies, this is not the way things are supposed to be. Is it?
His solution to the inadequate state of things is nothing less than a reinvention of the game in which he sustained his injury. Soccer has long been a sport more given than most to rewarding quasi-aesthetic strategic doctrines, most famously the legendary “Total Football” of Rinus Michels and Johann Cruyff’s 1974 Dutch National Team, which in turn begot the Spanish Tiki-taka and the dynamic attacking of Pep Guardiola’s dominant contemporary Manchester City side. Ginghina, however, isn’t content with the mere role of manager-auteur but rather hopes to rewrite the rules entirely, literally changing the shape of the field (based on his readings in Eastern philosophy, he favors the octagon). Over the course of a roughly 10-minute-long shot, he stands before a diagram lecturing Porumboiu on the evolution of his philosophies. Much of his thinking is fixated on the offsides rule, though over time a more consistent and overarching idea begins to emerge: facilitating the movement of the ball by restricting the movement of players, cordoning off players within different parts of the fields (with the added benefit of reducing the possibility of injuries like Ginghina’s). Drawing a parallel to politics and history, an activity the film positively encourages, one might say that Ginghina has Balkanized the pitch. As in the local history, the smaller freedoms are given up in the name of greater ones.
Appearing in his own film, Porumboiu cuts a deadpan comic figure beside Ginghina. His is a politely interrogative presence, never hostile but nonetheless less than wholly welcome, his gentle, unceasing probing keeping his subject subtly but saliently on edge. As we find out towards the end of the film, Porumboiu knows his subject as the brother of a close friend, continuing his recent trajectory of looking for narrative within a tighter social sphere. His 2014 documentary The Second Game took the form of an extended interview with his father about his work (as a high-profile soccer referee under communism, no less), while the next year’s The Treasure was inspired by a digging scheme he was shanghaied into by a friend, who went on to play himself in the movie (the director excised his own role from the fictional version). True to their close-to-home subject matter, these are deceptively low-key stories, tales of largely anonymous people whose stratagems for making sense of the world are cut with a certain existential desperation.
As a director, Porumboiu’s approach is less swashbuckling attack than methodical possession game. The film consists of long, talky scenes, which don’t develop its subjects ideas so much as burrow deeper within them, showing different sides of Ginghina and his motivations. Even when Porumboiu stages a demonstration of his game (even if FIFA won’t approve it, maybe it can become a parallel sport?) that shows it to be ungainly and, more troublingly, not even particularly original, its inventor remains largely unaffected. It’s his response that gives the film its catchy title: back at the drawing board, he speaks of leaving room in his “Football 2.0” for versions 2.1 or 2.9 or 3.0 or 4. “Infinite football,” Porumboiu rejoins, but this isn’t the infinity of plenty, of the ever-expanding cosmos. Rather, it’s the more claustrophobic infinity of Zeno’s Paradox, a finite space subdivided, Sorcerer’s Apprentice-style, into ever-smaller intervals, a vision of progress falling in on itself.
It’s in this way that Infinite Football becomes a portrait of the quest for transformation, personal, social, and otherwise. Explaining the contrast between his surpassingly banal day job as a Gogolian petty bureaucrat and his inner life, Ginghina says, “In my double life, I revolutionize sport,” his eyes aglitter with excitement at his own claim. But if his version of the game were to gain mass acceptance and drastically reduce the frequency of injury, what would fill the long hours at his provincial desk? How would he make sense of his purpose in life? As it reaches its conclusion, the film raises both its own stakes and the level of absurdity. The analytical gymnastics are taken to new heights, with Ginghina’s father performing a hilariously bonkers exegesis of a kitsch art object, a moment that stands as an Eastern European analogue to the sort of serendipitous comic revelation perfected stateside by Nathan Fielder. After a rueful soliloquy defining the utopian dimensions of Ginghina’s project, Porumboiu offers a vision of a very different sort of paradise, bringing back his hero’s beloved forest creatures—with an assist from Brezhnev-era Soviet television—to cavort in a psychedelic habitat conspicuously absent of predators. As dreamworlds go, it’s innocent, colorful, and silly to its core. Who wouldn’t want to believe in it?