It doesn’t happen that often, even at a festival like Cannes, when you see something that takes you completely by surprise. Diamantino, from the directorial duo of Gabriel Abrantes from Portugal and U.S.-born Daniel Schmidt, is such a movie. Props to the people of the Critics’ Week for programming a film that’ll no doubt elicit walkouts and groans as well as praise, rabid critical adoration and probably a raft of queer-studies theses a few years down the line. Love it or hate it, this title will surely be hotly debated wherever it goes, and that’s just based on the story it contains, not the outstanding way in which everything has been imagined, assembled and played. (The following review contains spoilers; a virgin viewing experience is advised for maximum impact.)
It’s hard to suggest what the film is about in a few lines, the reason why will become clear when describing the plot: The home of a universally adored, very loving but somewhat dimwitted Portuguese soccer star called Diamantino Matamouros (Carloto Cotto) — modeled on local metrosexual superstar Ronaldo, at least in terms of looks — is infiltrated by “Lusitanian Information Services,” who plan to use him for nefarious political ends. One of their female agents poses as a teenage boy, whom he subsequently adopts as his son. Simultaneously, shady scientific experiments on the player start to alter his body in unexpected ways while he slowly develops feelings for his adopted son, a young man who, unbeknownst to him, is really a lesbian. And that’s hardly all: African refugees, right-wing extremists, fake nuns, real evil sisters and long-haired lapdogs as big as entire homes are, of course, also part of the mix.
Taken purely on a surface level, this sounds like the kind of out-there plot that John Waters might have concocted had he ever taken an extensive screenwriting holiday on XTC in the Algarve. But what makes Diamantino such a gem is that it is not only a completely wacky story filled with the most improbable B-movie tropes, wicked sight gags and a constant barrage of unexpected twists and turns. Indeed, at a deeper level, this is a smart exploration of the transgressive nature of queer desire, which transcends gender, physical appearance and, perhaps most controversially, even (adopted) filiality. It also indirectly makes a case for how unconditional love and open-mindedness can be the answer to some of Europe’s most pressing social and humanitarian crises. In short, it’s a Trojan Horse of a movie, smuggling in big ideas on the backs of gigantic poodles in fluffy pink clouds involved in one of the wackiest plots you’ve ever heard or seen. Finally, you can have your B-movie cake and eat it with grade-A ideas too.
I started this review by saying the film is completely surprising, which is not to say it is completely original. Besides Waters, there are elements of a lot of other queer filmmakers and thinkers here, including a dash of Iberian colleague Almodovar’s early work in a delightfully awkward talk show sequence that tries to unravel how Matamouros felt after he was blamed for a catastrophic loss by the Portuguese national team. (The one thing in the story that is never quite credible is why someone responsible for such a crushing defeat would subsequently be chosen for the role he’s asked to play by those in power.)
The filmmakers don’t propose radically new queer ideas, instead offering up familiar notions in excitingly cinematic ways. What is original, however, is how they have woven all these influences together and how the insane story and its intellectual undercurrents are constantly being advanced simultaneously. It’s an utter delight to see that theoretical academic musings on gender, love, sexuality and politics can be packaged and reflected upon in such a jocular and constantly entertaining way.
Carloto Cotto is perfectly cast as the innately kind and initially entirely asexual soccer star who’s clearly not the brightest bulb in the box. The secret to his performance is that he plays everything completely straight; his character is never in on the joke or any of the work’s potential deeper meanings. He did something similar in a very different role as the romantic lead in compatriot Miguel Gomes’ Tabu, a film whose structural double resembles this one, as it packaged a political and post-colonial tract as a dipped-in-saudade romance from colonial times.
The numerous special effects are beautifully integrated and occasionally lend the proceedings a somewhat dream-like air, which clashes heavily — and intentionally so — with the political issues the film raises, from genetic research gone out of control to the extremes that the extreme right is willing to go to obtain and maintain power to the arrival of refugees looking for a better world. The film’s production and costume design are a source of surprise and chuckles throughout, like when it turns out that Diamantino has prepared a bed for his son that’s got a duvet and pillows with the soccer star’s face all over them.
Production companies: Les Films du Bellier, Maria & Mayer, Syndrome Films
Cast: Carloto Cotto, Cleo Tavares, Anabela Moreira, Margarida Moreira, Carla Maciel, Filipe Vargas, Manuela Moura Guedes, Joana Barrios, Maria Leite
Writer-Directors: Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt
Producers: Justin Taurand, Maria Joao Mayer,Daniel van Hoogstraten
Director of photography: Charles Ackley Anderson
Production designer: Bruno Duarte
Editors: Raphaelle Martin-Holger, Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt
Music: Ulysse Klotz, Adriana Holtz
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week)
No rating, 92 minutes