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Review: Diamantino

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Ignorance is bliss

It can sometimes be easy to dismiss celebrities as shallow and jaded; the gorgeous model who poses in lavish jewelry for a living, or the actor who shows up with a line to collect millions for a car commercial. Diamantino, the gonzo political comedy-drama from Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt looks to sympathize with their titular hero, one of the "pretty people." Through hallucinogenic soccer matches and government conspiracies, Diamantino works to get its audience to empathize with an airhead.

Diamantino
Director: Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt
Rated: NR
Release Date: May 24, 2019 (limited)

Our hero Diamantino Matamouros (Carloto Cotta) is Portugal's favorite son. An incredible soccer (fine: futbol!) star who's carried his team to victory time and time again, winning glory for Portugal in a way perhaps unfathomable to a foreigner. For the Latin countries, soccer is a way of life, a fundamental part of culture. Diamantino is a legend, and it's all thanks to the fluffy puppies. 

"What in the world?," you might ask. Yes, when he's on the field, in the zone, we're treated to a glimpse of 'Tino's perception of the world. A blanket of sparkling, cotton candy-like clouds of pink blanket everything as he races with the ball between his feet. Other players? There are none. Only massive, frolicking puppies. They look a bit like shih tzus to me.

Diamantino submerges the audience, with a straight face, in the internals of its star's childlike mind, fully committing to the visuals almost immediately. But all is not perfect in Tino's world. When he botches a crucial penalty shot and simultaneously loses his beloved father, a public, emotional breakdown ensues, and Tino becomes an overnight laughing stock; how quickly the public will turn from lavishing praise to lashing a whip is apparent in Diamantino's early media satire. Left under the management of his Cinderella-esque wicked sisters (Anabela and Margarida Moreira), Diamantino is pimped out to a shady medical study looking to decipher the physical traces of the striker's "genius," all while Portuguese special police in the form of Aisha (Cleo Tavares) and Lucia (Maria Leite) conduct a daring undercover scheme to investigate what goes on in the Matamouros house.

If it sounds like a lot, it is. Diamantino, for its brisk 96 minute run, throws its audience into a whirlwind story of B-movie pulp and sci-fi, introducing fantastic elements without worrying too much about their applications to real-world logic. Nothing to get in the way of a good time. Yet for its on-paper insanity (Tino is tested by a maniacal "Dr. Lamborghini," an ice queen bound to a Professor X-like wheelchair) there would appear to be a lot of layers to Diamantino's ludicrousness. 

Innocent as his inspirational fluffy puppies, Tino shies away from sex like a nervous child, his own identity called into question. Surrounded by women who use and abuse him, an early epiphany over the plight of sea-bound refugees has Tino adopt "Rahim," who is actually agent Aisha undercover as a boy. Tino lavishes love and affection on his adopted "son," filling "him" with Nutella crepes and tickling and playing constantly. What first might register as creepy becomes simply unconditional love, yet there's an odd barrier when you realize Tino loves, platonically, a woman he thinks is a young man. Further complicating things are Dr. Lamborghini's experiments, which bend Tino's hormones in all sorts of... apparent ways. Diamantino explores sexual naivete and gender identity in a straightforward-yet-effective way, through the lens of a child, essentially.

And while on the subject of lenses, it's worth mentioning the filmic look of Diamantino, which uses 16mm film stock and a widescreen aspect ratio to give a deeply-saturated, pulpy look. Swathes of natural light strike from behind subjects, and beautiful locations like a castle-set commercial shoot liven up the scene. The camera is often handheld, lending an intimate, documentary feel to the unfolding schemes. I wouldn't call Diamantino a "wallpaper film," with one gorgeous composition after another, but its visual identity is appropriately unique, matching its subject matter.

And beyond Tino's struggle with his identity, Diamantino tackles serious subjects of a wide variety with good humor and reason. Tino's brush with struggling refugees snaps him out of his soccer and puppies world, breaking the walls of wealth that insulate so many of us (even if we aren't sports stars). Diamantino's tremendous empathy towards those struggling is another aspect of his childlike innocence and good nature, and makes him even easier to exploit for nefarious intentions. 

I believe the less you know about Diamantino, the better, but to not mention its takes on contemporary far-right politics and authoritarian overtones would be a disservice. In a Portugal teetering on secession from the European Union, could Diamantino's image of a Portuguese Apollo sway the masses?

Though it doesn't drag or feel heavy-handed in its messaging, there are times where Diamantino's campy aesthetic can come across as a little uninteresting, and perhaps too on-the-nose. It's a veneer to dress a sophisticated work as unpretentious and unassuming, which is in itself a brilliant, self-referential means of opening discussion. Because the camp is earnest but secondary, it never becomes a sort of excessive action or schlock-fest; it's a little bit like a cupcake without sugar.

But really, there's a lot to admire about Diamantino, if not solely for giving us such an interesting and emblematic protagonist. Tino's innocence and simpleness, offset by his comically-evil sisters (we watch them butcher a pig at one point, bathed in blood) creates a fairytale-like atmosphere, except this princess is actually a prince. 

Diamantino is a film that will fall under most filmgoers' radars, and that's a real shame. Its foreign language and modest appeal relegate it to arthouse theaters and VOD (eventually), yet while a glance might lead the misinformed to write it off as "artsy" or "pretentious," it is a movie whose core motif tries to be just the opposite, while still engaging in high discussion. Some of the best of science-fiction and genre films always have a social conscious, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers in the '50s to my favorite Repo Man of the Reaganomic '80s, and the blacksploitation crime films of the 1970s. Diamantino maintains the tradition of looking at real problems through an otherworldly portal. And that portal features massive, fluffy puppies.

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Diamantino reviewed by Sam van der Meer

7

GOOD

Solid and definitely has an audience. There could be some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.
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