fri 14/06/2024

A Useful Life | reviews, news & interviews

A Useful Life

A Useful Life

Emotions slowly come to life in a black-and-white Uruguayan movie about cinema itself

Empty spaces? The loneliness of the Montevideo cinephile

Richly nuanced in its sideshot view of Uruguay’s film world and Montevideo street atmosphere, Federico Veiroj’s A Useful Life is a small film that picks up on suppressed emotions which are only released in its second half. Its black-and-white images (actually transferred from colour, in a manner consciously evoking previous eras) recalls something of European cinema of the 1950s and 1960s.

The three non-professional leads live rather than play their parts, but it’s atmosphere, conveyed especially through its score, that gives the film its charm.

Central character Jorge (played by real-life Uruguayan film critic Jorge Jellinek) has been 25 years at Montevideo’s Cinemateque, as programmer, scholar, technician, overvoice translator and host of the local radio film programme - in short, it's his home. He’s still living with his parents, though we have the impression his real family is the small group of devotees, especially his colleague Martinez (Manuel Martinez Carril), who are keeping the venue open, despite waning interest from visitors.

It’s the kind of dedication to scholarly purpose that you could find in a number of such institutions, and details are nicely sketched: Jorge clearly lives whatever he has for an emotional life through the screen and the reels (pictured right) to which he’s so devoted. The only hint at anything else is a very shy love interest with law professor Paola (Paola Venditto) who’s a regular at screenings, and whom Jorge keeps trying to summon up the courage to invite for a coffee.

With bills mounting, the Cinemateque’s closure is only a matter of time, leaving the heavily built, sad-faced Jorge confronted with the end of his world. At this halfway point, A Useful Life moves into something akin to gentle fable, as its hero goes on an unexpected night journey through his city, gradually losing his hangdog look and discovering that there’s another life out there after all.

First stop is Paola’s law faculty, but she’s busy – so he improvises as a guest lecturer to riff on the quirky theme that “lying is universal”. The small details that follow – a new haircut, the fact that he leaves his heavy academic briefcase behind – speak volumes about this modest transformation. Back at the university he even improvises a Gene Kelly dance routine on its steps. Paola appears, and for the first time accepts his invitation – to see a film together. They depart into the big city night, in an understated ending that nevertheless hints at new emotional horizons ahead for both.

At just short of 70 minutes, Veiroj lets his story speak for itself, directing with considerable sensitivity, especially in the film’s music and visuals. “Small gem” may be an overused term, but it’s apt enough for A Useful Life.

  • A Useful Life is at BFI Southbank and selected cinemas nationwide

Watch the trailer to A Useful Life

At its halfway point, A Useful Life moves into something akin to gentle fable, as its hero goes on an unexpected night journey through his city


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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