Monday, January 10, 2011

Federico Veiroj's A USEFUL LIFE, Uruguay's submission for BFLF Oscar, opens at MoMA

Imagine for a moment, you film buffs located in the greater NYC area, that suddenly there was no more Walter Reade Theater or Film Society of Lincoln Center -- and further that, say, Richard Peña was just as suddenly out of a job. Inconceiv-able, right? If you read my posts at all regularly, you will have noticed that I attend the Walter Reade more often than any other theater (Film Forum and IFC Center would probably tie for second place), so imagining that the above might happen is difficult for me. Yet all this came quickly and unpleasantly to mind while viewing the new Uruguayan movie A Useful Life (La vida útil), the work of director and co-writer Federico Veiroj, pictured below. While Montevideo, the setting of A Useful Life, is no New York, the difference is merely a matter of scale.

Although his movie is set in quite modern times, Señor Veiroj, along with his co-writers Inés Bortagaray, Gonzalo Delgado and Arauco Hernández Holz, takes us back to an era 50 years ago and to some of the art films of the early 60s that feature black-and-white cinematog-raphy; quiet, sometimes elliptical narrative (often about the lives of "little people"); and a very sparse budget (though nothing as minimal, I think, as today's DIY videos). In that spirit, our film-making team has produced a wonder-ful example of art cinema that is also about art cinema -- what it means to those who view it, those who purvey it, and where, alas, it might be going.

In the course of this short, 63-minute movie -- at least half of which is spent examining a typical work day -- the main character, Jorge (played by Jorge Jellinek, above, who is apparently a real-life critic in Uruguay and in fact bears some slight resemblance to our own Richard Peña), learns that, due to a combination of mounting unpaid bills and diminishing audiences, his beloved Cinemateque, for which he has labored over 25 years, will be closing, leaving him unemployed.

His immediate response to this runs the gamut between dull shock and manic activity (well, manic for the likes of Jorge) and is by turns sad, funny, crazy and surprising. Those of us who live our lives through movies will more than identify with this fellow, even if the song played full-throttle during this section -- about having a distance to travel but no horses able to get there -- may seem a bit foreign.

We know but little of this man's life and character. He's got an aging father and an eye on a younger woman (Paola Venditto, above, right) who frequents the Cinemateque (and for whom, in the midst of all the economic woes and despite her willingness to pay, he provides a complimentary admission).

What Jorge does during the last half-hour of the film adds a zap of necessary energy to the proceedings. His life is going, you might say, from that of art movie into something more mainstream. In similar fashion, perhaps, while his former life has been spent toiling in the vineyards of non-profit, what is to come will very likely be for profit. And you can keenly sense some of the excitement (and, yes, fear) that Jorge feels.

The movie's final shot -- again, so 60s! -- is redolent with possibilities of all kinds. And, as were true of  the movies back then, this one packs all its credits into the beginning. Only one word -- Fin -- closes Veiroj's small, bracing (but I hope not prescient) movie.

A Useful Life, distributed by The Global Film Initiative, is this year's submission by Uruguay for consideration as Best Foreign Language Film. While the Academy's placing this little movie on even the shortlist would surprise me, it would certainly say something for that storied group's understanding of the plight of repertory and art cinema. (A glossy, mainstream narrative about film-making, such as Even the Rain, is more likely to find itself on the Academy's list.) In any case, the film opens for a one-week run in New York City at MoMA, to be followed by showings in other cities, too.
Click here to view dates and times and/or to order MoMA tickets. 
Click here to view further GFI playdates.

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