Review: The Second Game (Al Doilea Joc)

The Second Game (Al Doilea Joc)

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I should have known really.

I should have known really.

Now here is a bizarre one. Looking through the JDIFF brochure for films to watch, I was immediately struck by the information given for The Second Game, being a big sports fan. Not being able to see my first preference under that heading, Gabe Polsky’s Red ArmyThe Second Game seemed like an acceptable second choice. But having bought my ticket on impulse, part of me was wary before the screening, so strange was the premise being presented. Themes of sporting rivalry, politics, father-son relationships and football under dictatorships were all foremost in my mind as the film rolled, as well as worry that the kind of commentary-focused experience I was about to watch might see its effect lessened by the necessity of subtitles. I caught a screening of The Second Game at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

In December 1988, Adrian Porumboiu refereed the hotly contested derby match between Dinamo and Steaua Bucharest. 26 years later, Adrian sits down with his son, documentary filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu, to re-watch this game, with the two discussing Romanian football, the political situation in the country at the time and how much things have changed in the sport since that cold winter day.

What was I really expecting here? Maybe something that could elaborate on the corruption and deficiencies inherent in Romanian football in the period depicted. Maybe discussion on how the game took place in a country on the cusp of major political change. Maybe talk about how father and son view each other, a generation apart.

But what I did get can be summed up by three words I scribbled in my notes: “new wave shite”.

The Second Game is a film that I am so far from being the target audience for that it really is amazing that I bothered at all. Mr Porumboiu is, apparently, front and centre of the “Romanian new wave”, which means , to me, that his films are all exercises is obfuscation and muddying the point to a degree that makes them unintelligible. Porumboiu adds to this by making his films minimalist and cheap to an extreme, perhaps reaching his zenith here, where the visual side of things is literally just a grainy recording of a football match from the late 1980’s.

Everything then hinges on the discussion, and the discussion is this meandering dull thing, that lacks any stand-out point making or evocative theme. Porumboiu has something he is trying to say with The Second Game, but I’m damned if I have the ability to figure it out. The dullness permeates the entire experience, as there are only a handful of moments when father and son seem to be having a conversation that I actually want to listen to, and these moments pass by alarmingly fast. The two discuss boring things as a very boring match – no matter what Adrian Porumboiu thinks – plays out in front of them. “Nothing’s happening” it is remarked at one point in a second half absent nearly any kind of excitement. “Just like one my films” says Porumboiu, laughing, and the audience might be forgiven for wondering if Porumboiu is laughing at them, for being stupid enough to pay money to sit down and watch this.

I mean, The Second Game starts with a degree of promise, as the director talks about how, as a child, he received threatening phone calls from people who wanted to influence his father one way or another when it came to the game in question. In the opening minutes, the elder Porumboiu talks about approaches made to him personally, and how he responded. No simple game of football here: Bucharest’s two major teams, organs of different sections of the state, are willing to do whatever it takes to win games. I hoped we might be going somewhere in the direction of stuff covered in Jonathan Wilson’s excellent Behind The Curtain: Travels In Eastern European Football, which contained an extensive chapter on the pitfalls and underhanded dealings that have often infected Romanian soccer. That was an outsider’s perspective, but here is a man who was, literally, in the middle of it all.

But it isn’t long after kick-off that the drudgery begins. Adrian Porumboiu has no great interest in discussing either the details of Romanian football’s problems at the time, or how football and politics interacted in Ceausescu’s Romania. The odd reference here and there, but Porumboiu seems more bemused by his sons project, and just wants to talk about the actual game going on in front of him.

I mean, here we are, watching the teams of the Romania army and secret police play out a gruelling derby in appalling weather, just a year ahead of Ceausescu’s violent overthrow, and there is just so little said about it at all, other than to acknowledge that such things happened. Here is a society that is comfortable with an astonishing level of corruption in its sport, but where the camera cuts away from “unsportsmanlike” behaviour since it can’t be show on television. There is an exploration to be had there, one ripe with insights into a very particular time, place and sport. But it just does not occur.

Maybe it might help if the game was in any good, but it isn’t. The pitch is a disaster, the snow a ruining impediment. A few moments of half-decent football occur, and one team hit the bar in the second half. But it’s mostly a messy, clipped and thoroughly boring contest, despite Porumboiu constant repetitions of a sentiment that it is anything but. Here is a man in the mould of Mark Lawrenson, bemoaning the modern state of the game, and lavishing praise on the physicality of a bygone era, when the sight of blood was common enough and crunching tackles that would get someone banned today are legal. “Look how hard they’re trying” he repeats endlessly, in lieu of actually talking about anything interesting, as if the efforts of the players to play football in this blizzard make up for the awfulness of the spectacle.

Maybe The Second Game is supposed to a portrait of the father then, this incorruptible figure who spends the 90 minutes espousing a philosophy of fairness in officiating and allowing for free-flowing football. But that just doesn’t really work out either. The elder Porumboiu just doesn’t want to talk about his upstanding nature too much, and the younger one doesn’t want to try and press the point. Perhaps he thinks watching his father refrain from giving a few deserved yellow cards is enough. It really isn’t.

What did I learn? What was the point? Precious little. The game ends in a dour scoreless stalemate, and the film ends almost immediately after, Porumboiu congratulating his father on a contest well refereed. The credits rolled and it came as a blessing, saving me from the temptation of sleep, a temptation I have not felt in a cinema theatre in a very long time.

“Minimalist”, in the context of this film anyway, appears to be a nice word for pointless. The younger Porumboui had the chance to make something that could appeal to Romanians and football fans everywhere, but instead settled for a listless exercise in just about nothing at all. The Second Game isn’t even a film really, because films have a point, a structure, a message. The Second Game has none of those things, not really, and exists only as a pretentious “new wave” piece of lazy commentary, where the director decides to let his audience do all the work of making whatever interpretations they please while he records himself and his father blathering on for 90 minutes and slaps a label on it. I’m never going to be an arthouse connoisseur, because I simply don’t have the time, energy or inclination to become invested in drek like this. I don’t know who could possibly enjoy something like this. Sports fans certainly won’t. It’s not the worst film of the year (unlike The Interview, The Second Game didn’t go out of its way to offend me), but it is something to avoid. Not recommended.

Pretty much it.

Pretty much it.

(All images are copyright of Contre-Allee Distrubition and Siehe Produktion).

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