Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue May 15, 2007 11:05 pm 
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Innocent pilgrimage to a soccer god

The Argentinian director Carlos Sorin has staked out a small but secure place for himself in the world of cinema. His gentle road movies have tended to use non-actors in congenial roles to depict wanderings in obscure regions (mostly somewhere in Patagonia or the far south of the country). The most recent Sorin films concerned traveling dog show followers (Bombon, el perro, 2004) and a small collection of minor people whose tales were intertwined (Historias Minimas, 2002). This time his main traveler is more driven, and has a more mainstream mission. He makes it almost all the way to Buenos Aires, and he is, essentially, doing what millions do, or would like to.

Tati Benitez (Ignacio Benitez) is a fanatical sports fan. What could be more fanatical in Argentina than the need to worship and follow Diego Maradona, the soccer god? There's nothing offbeat about Diego. Tati, a healthy young fellow who has a sweet and honest and innocent and rather pretty face, lives in a remote village in the Misiones jungle with his pregnant wife (Paola Rotela, the actor's actual, and actually then pregnant, spouse). Tati's uniform is a soccer shirt with Maradona's number 10 on it and has a huge 10 tattooed on his back. Fellow villagers joke that he's married to the star. The presentation of Tati's obsession is tongue in cheek, as various villagers tell the camera about it. He's even got two parrots who chime "Maradona."

Times are tough and Tati has lost his job as a lumberjack. He goes to work for Silva (Miguel Gonzales Colman), an ancient Indian woodcarver who speaks only the guaraní language, learning the trade in exchange for small rewards. His wife is at home expecting the baby. Tati learns all about the kinds of wood. One day in a forest looking for good pieces to carve in a heavy rainstorm Tati finds a big root rising up out of the ground that he thinks is the spitting image of his soccer idol standing with arms lifted in triumph after scoring a goal. Thinking himself blessed by the magical appearance in his path of this symbolic object, Tati lugs the root back and in time Silva brings out the likeness. We never quite get a good look at the whole thing up close, but it's clear the resemblance is largely in the eye of the beholder, and grows in proportion to one's fandom. Eventually, the news comes (this is in 2004, when it happened) that Maradona has had a heart attack and is in intensive care in Buenos Aires. Everyone hangs on watching communal TV's. When he first hears the news, Tati thinks it's just a bad joke. After a few days "El Diego" is reported to have abruptly left the hospital. Later he's reported to be playing golf at a club.

A youth club has offered to accept the carved root, but after consulting with a fortune teller, Tati, Sorin's rural sports fan everyman, decides he must make the pilgrimage to his idol and present it directly to him. He goes off, the carving wrapped in black plastic secured with a rope. Of course people keep asking what it is and he must unveil it. He meets lost of people along the way, including the main actors in 'Bombon', Juan Villegas, in a camera shop, and Walter Donado, driving an ambulance. Also notable is Maria Marta Alvez as a girl from a roadside brothel and Lila Caceres as a young wife on a pilgrimage to pray to the cowboy saint, Gauchito Gil. Most notable, because they are together longest, is Waguinho (Carlos Wagner La Bella, actually a film producer), a big burly bearded Brazilian driving a giant truck, who when he hears about the sculpture at first refuses to give Tati a ride, Maradona of course being no friend of Brazil, where the god of soccer, in case you didn't know, is Pelé (Edson Arantes do Nascimento), who, dare we say it, is the greatest soccer player of all time. (But it only said "arguably," -- and that was on a Brazilian website.) Waguiho does give Tati a long ride, and his rambling monologues bring home the folkloric aspects of football worship. After all, the big carved root is a kind of idol, and it's clear the common people in Latin America come close to attributing supernatural powers to their athletic deities.

When Tati finally gets to the place where Maradona's supposed to be, he finds a whole encampment. It's surely no accident that "San Diego" could signify the athlete's sainthood -- though his failings -- drug excess, obesity, sheer unruliness -- do not go unmentioned either -- and Santiago (i.e., San Diego) de Compostela is a famous Christian religious pilgrim's destination. This is the clearest sign that Sorin's work feels more mainstream this time, not only because he is dealing with an object of mass popularity, but because where Tati goes is where, in a sense, everyone in the country wants to be at this moment. And not only that, but there is a kind of accomplishment in the handling of crowd scenes, shots of big trucks in motion full of standing riders, not to mention Tati and the Brazilian in the big cab, all showing more technical ambition this time. There is a kind of propulsive forward energy in El Camino de San Diego that 'Bombon' and 'Historias Minimas' lacked. The love of ordinary folk, of the little guy, the forgotten person, is stronger, more touching than ever this time. Sorin might reach a larger audience with this film. If ever there was a feel-good movie, this is it. There is at the same time a certain sense of loss. Carlos Sorin no longer seems an obscure director one loves in a special way because hardly anyone else knows or cares about him -- but that was really never true anyway.

Shown as a part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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