‘Sportin’ Life’: Film Review | Venice 2020

Abel Ferrara’s video diary of 2020, ‘Sportin’ Life,’ ranges from the Berlin Film Festival to the COVID-19 lock-down in New York and features actor Willem Dafoe.

Made as part of an international art project curated by Saint Laurent’s creative director Anthony Vaccarello, Abel Ferrara’s Sportin’ Life is a 65-minute trip through the mind of the New York filmmaker, where we find a mixture of the curious and the exasperating. Screened out of competition at Venice, it was filmed and edited between February and September of this fateful year 2020, when the coronavirus brought the world to a halt.

That description may not seem very appetizing, and the documentary has its stretches of wheel-spinning. A self-portrait akin to his 2017 Alive in France, it’s given depth and gravitas in its poignantly familiar images of the pandemic in New York, which reached its peak as the film was being shot. It’s the kind of doc whose greatest appeal will be to film fans, who will appreciate its privileged glimpses into the creative process behind the director’s films and the important contribution of Willem Dafoe, the actor he has often worked with in recent years.

The Bottom Line

An impressionistic self-portrait treads between art and death.

Shuffling between glimpses of Ferrara’s family life with his wife Cristina Chiriac and their daughter Anna (both appear on-screen in Tommaso and Siberia) and a series of lively interviews the director and Dafoe gave to journalists at the Berlin Film Festival, it also intercuts shots of empty NYC streets and despair in COVID wards with rock music and partying in Berlin. It was that kind of a year. Included is a lot of footage of Berlin jam sessions where the Ferrara clan earnestly makes music alongside regular collaborators Paul Hipp and Joe Delia (the latter has scored most of Ferrara’s major films, including Bad Lieutenant, King of New York, Body Snatchers and The Funeral).

Which is not to say that this mash of personal, artistic and world events is always illuminating or fascinating. The material, which seems to come mostly from the Berlinale where Ferrara and Dafoe went to promote Siberia, can feel very repetitive, especially the recurring concert shots. Bits and pieces of the director’s oeuvre are scattered across this hour, but one waits in vain for some self-commentary on his films and their influence on his present work. Christopher Walken appears discoursing on Nietzsche to Lili Taylor in the philosophical vampire movie The Addiction. Dafoe appears in the tinted glasses of Pier Paolo Pasolini picking up boys on the streets and prophetically replies to an interviewer, “we are all in danger.” The stigmata are clearly visible on an old photo of Padre Pio and the film is full of crucifixes and the suffering Christ.

Sitting on a couch in front of a changing guard of cameramen and interviewers, Ferrara and Dafoe joke and relax and somehow come up with fresh answers to identical questions. Dafoe is particularly adept at this game, and he seems to use the promotional work to explore the acting process within himself. He observes the reaction of audiences to his films with intelligent irony, like the man who admitted to him he had walked out of Siberia after an hour. “So he missed the talking fish,” comments the star. Rather chillingly, a clip appears of a fish in a pan who keeps repeating, “the end is near.”

Ferrara, on the other hand, makes a low-key joke out of being continuously asked about his dark stories and his dark approach to filmmaking. When the editor cuts to patients on respirators in a COVID ward, or mass burials on Hart island, or a field of cars waiting in line for grocery bags, it comments on how dark life has become in general.

The scenes are barely connected with each other and the dialogue often has a non-sequitur quality, like conversations you overhear at the next table in a restaurant. Ferrara seems to state that he’s been sober for seven years, and that Anna, the baby of the family who has appeared in several of his feature films, is as reliable as a dog (this gets a laugh). But the presence of a young family appears to have steadied this dynamic filmmaker, like the group of actors and musicians who have become part of his creative team.

Production companies: Saint Laurent, Vixens
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Cristina Chiriac, Abel Ferrara, Joe Delia, Paul Hipp, Anna Ferrara
Director: Abel Ferrara
Producers: Gary Farkaws, Clement Lepoutre, Olivier Muller, Diana Phillips, Anthony Vaccarello
Director of photography: Sean Price Williams
Editors: Leonardo Daniel Bianchi, Stephen Gurewitz
Music: Joe Delia
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of competition)
65 minutes