Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Apr 14, 2015 11:28 am 
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A sensory filming of Rio soccer

Eryk Rocha's Sunday Ball is a celebration of soccer played with passion by the poor people of Brazil who stage their own more humble rival World Cup every year with playoffs among fourteen teams from Rio's favelas named after the big international professional squads. This film is not a conventional documentary. You get a strong visual and auditory experience, but you won't come away with many specifics. Campo de Jogo ("Playing Field," the film's original Portuguese name) is done in an observational style similar to the work coming out of or inspired by the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor.

The result is a treat to the senses, but not a conventional film where the local conditions are described or the progress of a game studiously followed. We get up close, very close, particularly with coaches' pep talks ("today the sun will be cold for you"), the teams' dedicatory chant of the Lords Prayer and two Hail Marys, fights with referees, and penalty shots. And we get a good look at young male spectators who almost become a part of the game, and we get up close to fans of all ages and both sexes.

The game's the thing, and the roar and movement and excitement of the crowd who are one with it. But coverage is more impressionistic than literal. Though they focus mainly on the championship between Geração (from the Matriz favela) vs. Juventude (from the Sampaio favela), Rocha and his editor Renato Vallone present the film as the flow of a day on the field, but don't restrict themselves to one game. With a team of cameramen collaborating for the razor-sharp and glowing, precisely colored images of spectators and games, they splice other games in, and interrupt them impulsively with sudden passages from Puccini or Wagner. Weissberg suggests in his Rio Variety review that the way the game's "balletic energy" is captured is analogous to "cadenzas." Maybe the filmmakers see the game's surges of energy as arias -- alternating with slow periods, since the main game is kept no-score most way by cagey Geração 's holding patterns . There's also music from Hector Villa-Lobos, and the final credits are enlivened by the elegant, precise rhythms of Jorge Amorim.

Eryk Rocha is the son of the late Gabriel Rocha, founder of social activist school of Cinema Novo and one of Brazil's great directors. This is an exquisite film, and his father's idealism is present in the focus on the sport of the poor. The quality of the images is astonishing, the light and colors tuned exactly right. But this is a little bit different from going through Montana mountains with a herd of sheep or getting a fish-eye view of a New England boat (Castaing-Taylor's Sweetgrass and Leviathan) or from wandering around a crowded Chinese park on a holiday (Harvard filmers Cohn and Sniadecki's People's Park). Those are more obviously exotic experiences, and it's no coincidence that the GoPro fish-eye view one is the most powerful. Watching a soccer match is something we've nearly all done, and this version of one, beautiful though it may be as an art piece, tends to best mimic what it's like to watch a sport without understanding it, i.e., the viewpoint of a small child (if any exist in Brazil so small they don't know their soccer) or the most disinterested of wives. It seems odd to use the Harvard Ethnography Lab approach to such a highly structured and meaning-drenched event as a soccer championship, and the event, seen this way, seems, however beautiful and passionate, to be warring with itself. At times if feels as if it has been drained of usual meanings more than it's been endowed with new unexpected ones. More appropriate: a week in the locker room.

Sunday Ball/Campo de Jogo,, 71 mins., debuted at Rio, Dec. 2014, also showing at MoMA Feb. 2015. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival. See SFIFF schedule. US theatrical release Cinema Village 11 Dec. 2015.

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