The glimmering stars of the universe give way to the crystalline grid of a city — so distant as to be anonymous. All becomes clear as the jeweled heart of this metropolis appears, and a kind voice speaks to us of what makes a contemporary Michelangelo. This is modern-day Portugal, and the great artwork in motion is a World Cup semi-final. Diamantino Matamouros (Carloto Cotta) bounds across the field like a god at play in Olympus — his narration serenading us above an ethereal, synth-laden soundtrack. Football is this man’s destiny, and the chemical reaction produced when his gilded foot meets the ball is one of national pride and hope. Oh, and also imaginary clouds of cotton candy pink, whose fluffy mist spontaneously generates titanic Pekingnese puppies.
Right from the off, Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt’s Diamantino (now streaming on the Criterion Channel) makes it clear that this will be neither a traditional sports comedy nor impenetrable camp art; like many topics that circulate through its overcrowded and blissed-out cinematic mind, it is both of these things and more. While the plot tends to sprawl, there is an undeniable emotion to all of the central performances that keep the film on track. Beyond that, the filmmaking itself has a tactile quality that feels fresh, timeless. This is a jumbled tone poem of a movie that investigates the nature of confusion itself: the traumas that cause it, the deception that enables it, and the chaos it can propagate in personal relationships and the world at large.
Diamantino lives a bedazzled life. Whether lounging in his mansion or drifting aboard his yacht, he’s a superstar that seems unfazed by the stress of his career — nor by the constant verbal abuse leveled at him by his caustic and morally bereft twin sisters Sonia and Natasha (Anabela and Margarida Moreira, respectively). He begins the film with a rather pure sense of purpose, one instilled in him by his stoic but loving father Chico (Chico Chapas). While figures throughout the film muse over the source of his immense talents, we grasp it from the very beginning. On the field, Diamantino enters a flow state of play, no longer a public giant, but merely a small figure amongst his beloved dream dogs. The imagery is far out, but the sentiment rings true: free your mind, and the rest will follow — especially if one hopes to live out their dreams upon a conflict-riven globe.
To do so, however, this simple man must wake up. On a yachting trip, Diamantino and his family rescue a group of stranded migrants who have barely survived a traumatizing trip across the sea. The face of a horrified mother who had lost her child in transit is too much for the sheltered Diamantino to bear; he enters a fugue state of heartbreak and confusion, only to wake up one minute before the final whistle in the World Cup Final. When he flubs his last-gasp kick (effectively sinking his career), Diamantino’s father Chico unexpectedly dies, his sisters plot to sell off his genetics to the highest bidder, and Portuguese society shames him for the tears he shed on the soccer pitch in front of cameras. Worst of all, his beloved Pekingnese puppies vanish from his mind’s eye — replaced by visions of a vast ocean, raging and uncaring. He has been set adrift.
All of this occurs within the opening fifteen minutes, with the narrative soon joined by a parallel plot of two Portuguese secret agents — and lovers — Aisha (Cleo Tavares) and Lucia (Maria Leite) who believe Diamantino to be involved in an elite money laundering scheme. When the fallen celebrity makes a public announcement to open up his heart and his home to the refugees of the world, the secret agents decide to send the adult Aisha undercover as Rahim: a mute, male, teenage refugee from Mozambique. Diamantino adopts Aisha/Rahim, fully investing himself in giving this (faux) lost boy his version of the good life. Meanwhile, Diamantino’s twin sisters enroll their brother in a dangerous laboratory experiment with gender-bending results — and connections to a rising nationalist movement.
As Diamantino’s bubble pops and the reality outside floods inside, the dirty secrets that supported his romantic illusion of life threaten to ruin him. Perhaps it is a lot to ask of audiences to feel bad for an insanely wealthy and clearly delusional football superstar, but Cotta’s performance is immensely likable. It’s Cristiano Ronaldo genetically spliced with Derek Zoolander — the bumbling fool for our times, who stumbles through the identity crisis of EU-era Portugal just as he probes into the mysterious matters of his own heart.
The 16mm photography and kaleidoscopic lighting are frequently in dialogue with its digital effects and superimpositions. The end result is a mixed media collage whose giant Pekingnese dream puppies are some of the most memorable visual effects work in recent years — a freshly homemade creation that is essential to the film’s warm heart. Contrasted with the real geopolitical and social conflicts addressed narratively, the film repeatedly asks its audience questions, many of which seem to be paradoxical. Is this a class satire in the age of EU uncertainty? A dissection of society’s perverse demands and obsession with celebrity? Or a fairy tale about the love that can bind us together across any divide or boundary?
While the film wobbles a bit as it transitions into an undercooked sci-fi political thriller, the absurdity of it all still remains inexplicably charming, and the run time does not overstay its welcome. When it reaches its John-Waters-meets-James-Bond finale, the hyperreality of Diamantino has somehow managed to achieve an emotional authenticity and cosmic clarity that resonates. As the waves of a grief-stricken ocean wash onto the shores of fantasy, the film leaves us to reconcile our own fractured perspectives in time to save what we love — lest only falsified and insulated self-love be left for us in the wake of the coming storm.
Diamantino now streaming on the Criterion Channel.