Corneliu Porumboiu’s Infinite Football (Fotbal infinit) is definitely a film you could watch in its entirety without thinking it’s a documentary.
Staying nicely onside of what feels like a deadpan comedy for a delightfully compact seventy minutes in Berlinale’s Panorama section, it’s an unexpected gem - and one that certainly makes you reconsider the comedic potential of docs as it kookily tells the story of Romanian sporting extraordinaire Laurențiu Ginghină.
Unbeknownst to almost all of the world, maverick pioneer Ginghină has been busily reinterpreting the beautiful game for literally decades. Following a career-ending tackle in 1986 - which (rest assured) he describes in vivid length - this one-man sporting institution has been obsessing over ways to refine both the safety and the flow of football.
With an almost monomaniacal level of commitment that would put many to shame, he’s tried to formulate a new "infinite football". He's tried cutting the corners off pitches; strictly limiting the zones in which players can play using various weird lines; tried only allowing players to pass backwards; and has even considered scrapping the sacred offside rule altogether.
In essence, he has come up with a series of bat-shit, nonsensical measures and rules that stand about as much chance of being accepted by FIFA as Romania has of winning the next World Cup (the team didn't qualify). Plus, he seems to manage to be as consistent in his logic as Sepp Blatter was about not taking bribes.
But for a film that you go into expecting to be about non-stop football, you hardly see any play on the pitch or the training ground in Infinite Football. Instead, in what is probably quite a doctored piece of non-fiction filmmaking, you get something from the sidelines of the entire sport - something really rather more close to a Romanian version of The Office. And given how sort of irreverent and dry Romanian humour is, that really does prove to be quite spell-binding.
Right off the bat, you get a very clear image that we're not entering into the glitzy world of Real Madrid or some such ritzy FIFA HQ. Rather, Porumboiu transports us to the grey and gritty site where Ginghină received his life-chaning injury: an ex-football pitch of so little importance that it has rather brilliantly been converted into handball pitches in the summer and a skating rink in winter.
Here, Ginghină gives his limitlessly indepth account of what happened - from the way he limped home over multiple kilometres to the drugs his parents applied to the affected area. Then, we move into what is quite literally a drab and dreary office space, where most of the film plays out. Think underfunded 90s state school classroom, with lots of dull looking desks and a whiteboard where Ginghină explains the tactics behind his weird and wonderful new rules.
What makes we see in Infinite Football so low-key irresistible, though, is the very matter-of-fact, David Brent way in which Ginghină expresses himself. In what must have proved to have been an absolute documentarian's dream, he speaks with the utmost of sincerity and authority on the smallest of topics, and he often shifts bizarrely between topics without ever really acknowledging his own irony. It proves to be comedy gold.
That said, Ginghină himself is never really a dislikeable figure. In his straightfaced ridiculousness, he really embodies something of the charmingness of Romanian humour, and whilst I am not always sure whether he is unaware of how daft he sounds, or is just willfully ploughing through, to watch him blag really is a great joy. He is an absolute artist at "fake it till you make it," and you can't help but feel that his behaviour really does tap into something so very, very human. We can all relate to his hilarious efforts to make himself sound great, whilst his smoke screen of bullshit slowly and wildly gets out of his control.
Edited perfectly into a series of neatly unified and unpredictable punch lines, Infinite Football is often laugh-out-loud funny, if you watch it with the right crowd. In fact, perhaps the purest and funniest moments I have seen in any film at Berlinale so far this year are when both filmmaker and subject seem to have lost the logic behind their discussion of the new versions of football 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, 4.0 etc. That said, at the same time, this documentary does also manage to make some very profound observations of what it has been like to grow up in Romania and the European Union over the last 4+ decades.
I think Infinite Football is a real triumph of low-budget filmmaking. One of those ideas that is so pure, so simple, and so scruffily (visually, at least) that it's very difficult not to get behind. It's a cinematic underdog, and I think it will definitely win your heart if you're in the right mood for an unexpectedly odd little doc. Kudos to Corneliu Porumboiu.