Berlin 2014: 'The Second Game' review

★★★★☆
Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich once described football as "the ballet of the masses". In Corneliu Porumboiu's minimalist documentary The Second Game (2014), we watch a recording of an intense local derby between Romania's two largest teams (Steaua and Dinamo Bucharest) played in the winter of 1988 - a time when the backpass was still permitted, and the violent overthrow and execution of longtime Romanian president Nicolae Ceaușescu was on the horizon. In the 1980s Romanian football was enjoying a golden age (Steaua had won the European Cup and the national league in previous seasons).

Porumboiu's father was a referee at the time, his son choosing to sit down with his father 25 years later to rewatch the game and reminisce. Viewed via a grainy video cassette recording, this tense match (played out amidst a blizzard) is stripped of all unnecessary adornments except for the conversation shared between the two men. Communist regimes in Eastern Europe initially believed football to be a bourgeois construct, seeing it as a device for dividing and oppressing the working classes and weakening their own class-consciousness. However, mass support for the game meant it couldn't be banned so, like many other aspects of life, it was regulated - with teams such as Steaua and Dinamo becoming state-owned.

At one point, Porumboiu Jr. compares the match to one of his films, saying, "It's long and nothing happens." However, anyone familiar with Porumboiu's oeuvre will understand that behind all of his films always lies a profound social commentary taking place. Indeed, The Second Game is more than just a football game. It's a study of corruption and media representation in closed nations, with Porumbiou Sr. discussing match fixing, the ridiculous 'satellite teams' that made a mockery of the league, and the way in which state television camera's would avoid showing unsportsmanlike behaviour as it was deemed "counter-revolutionary".

A didactic in the intricacies of the state-controlled teams of the Eastern bloc, The Second Game makes for a fascinating insight into a world that was once veiled to the West. And yet, the film is best enjoyed as a father-son discourse. Much like the teams battling it out on the field, one Porumbiou has a flare for artistry whilst the other is old-fashioned, preferring a more direct approach to life. Though Porumbiou Sr. is often heard repeating the same line - "No one really cares about this movie" - there is a charming degree of warmth and compassion to a film about the futility of looking back on the past decisions you've made.

The 2014 Berlin Film Festival takes place from 6-16 February. For more of our coverage, simply follow this link.

Patrick Gamble

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