‘On Football’ (‘O Futebol’): Film Review

A father and son reunite against the backdrop of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil in Sergio Oksman’s fiction-doc hybrid.

In 2013, director Sergio Oksman was reunited with his father, Simao, Simao having walked out on the family 20 years earlier. They decide that they’ll meet in a year’s time to watch the World Cup together, and On Football is a record of their quiet, intense relationship during a month in which the world’s eyes were looking elsewhere. A further example of a recent tendency in Latin American films  that of seeking the universal in personal, even intimate material  this is a challenging piece, but also rewarding on the human level, suggesting that its success on the Spanish-speaking circuit following its Locarno premiere  including its forthcoming Spanish release  deserves to be replicated in other territories too.

On Football (that’s Euro football, not U.S.) teems with ideas  about father and sonhood, about structure and chaos, and of course about soccer. Indeed it’s soccer games that determine the film’s structure, with dates and games repeatedly flashing up on the screen, ending with the 7-1 at-home thrashing of Brazil by Germany, which provoked a national trauma.

The Bottom Line

The real drama’s on the sidelines.

But the ideas are remote and distant, and not handled in any structured way, a perhaps inevitable consequence of the film’s random methodology. Over-extended shots of Simao’s magazine puzzles in various degrees of zoom towards the end of the film are certainly moving, but also an example of a tendency to academic over-abstraction, which puts the ideas before the people.

Oksman’s shorts come at things from an entertainingly oblique perspective  witness his remarkable short doc A Story for the Modlins, about an extra in Rosemary’s Baby who mysteriously ended up in Madrid. The perspective of On Football is likewise contrary: despite the title, for example, we’re never taken inside an actual football stadium; we learn little about soccer, despite Simao’s strange combination of indifference towards, and expertise in it (he correctly predicts the teams who’ll play in the final); and, despite the collective excitement of a nation at the time, this is largely a nicely detailed record of tedium shared. It’s all been conceived from an intellectual perspective, as a study of what happens where the chaos of life and the structures of football overlap, and that’s not to say it’s cerebrally forbidding fare, but it certainly is slow.

If it’s not forbidding, it’s mostly because of Simao himself. Oksman’s father is irascible, unrepentant and possessed of an acid sense of humor that largely redeems him. “Do you never stop at pedestrian crossings?” Sergio asks him. “It depends who’s on them,” comes the answer. Most of the screen time is devoted to recording Simao as he goes about his day-to-day business, working through his magazine puzzles, busy in his technology workshop with his assistant Ailton, at home, sitting in the local bar, where the soccer games are screening (he accurately predicts the finalists), or driving around Sao Paolo with Sergio in the passenger seat, photographed implacably from the rear.

In these scenes, the silences between the pair speak louder than the words: these being men, it’s so much easier to speak about football than about emotions, and Sergio never even gets close to uncovering Simao’s reasons for abandoning his family and then spending 14 years living in a hotel. One extended scene featuring Simao’s wedding day is one of the film’s most moving, and Simao’s impassivity on watching it perhaps speaks more loudly than any dialogue could.

Simao and Sergio never actually get to a game: one section charts their failed journey, only to end up sitting staring at the stadium, with no radio. The film is shot through with this sense of absurdity, at the way life ends up frustrating us at every turn, and crucially On Football will later itself become an example of thwarted ambition, when its flow is interrupted by a cruel but not entirely unexpected event. Andre Brandao’s lensing is mainly fixed camera, often using elegant symmetrical framing, and sometimes merciless, as when trained quizzically on Simao’s face across a bar table.

Production company: Dok Films
Cast: Simao Oksman, Ailton Braga, Sergio Oksman
Director: Sergio Oksman
Screenwriters, editors: Carlos Muguiro, Sergio Oksman
Executive producers: Guadalupe Balaguer Trelles, Sergio Oksman, Andres Luque
Director of photography: Andre Brandao
Sales: Dok Films

No rating, 68 minutes