“Diamantino,” a new film written and directed by Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt, is the funniest gender-bending, human-cloning refugee-crisis soccer comedy I’ve ever seen, and also the most thoughtful. It begins with intimations of the otherworldly, gazing serenely down at the Earth from outer space, then descends on a giant soccer stadium whose field is soon crawling with giant Pekingese puppies, kicking up sparkly pink clouds of dust. From the sublime to the ridiculous, you might say, though for 96 minutes this cheerfully demented movie erases any real distinction.
Those puppies are the joyous hallucination of a simple-minded Portuguese soccer star named Diamantino Matamouros (Carloto Cotta), fluffy good-luck charms that appear at the climactic moments of a match and guide him to victory. They’re a glorious vision of innocence, and I could have happily watched them scamper about for 96 minutes without complaint. But “Diamantino” has much more on its mind, even if Diamantino himself initially doesn’t. Before long the puppies start to vanish, signaling the loss of his athletic mojo and his carefree spirit as he comes to realize what a deeply sad place the world can be.
The revelation is a long-overdue shock. Diamantino, whose uncanny resemblance to the real-life soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo is likely no coincidence, is rich, dumb and beautiful, a Speedo-clad mega-celebrity whose extraordinary athleticism stands in stark contrast with his severely limited cognitive abilities. But his greatest, least appreciated talent may well be his capacity for empathy. When his yacht crosses paths with a small boat carrying several African migrants, Diamantino is so pierced by their tragedy that he ends up costing Portugal the World Cup, collapsing in tears on the field and becoming a social-media laughingstock.
If I were to tell you that Diamantino loses his beloved father (Chico Chapas) the same night he loses the World Cup final, then rashly decides to quit soccer and adopt a “fugee,” you might well mistake this movie for a cringe-inducing exercise in First World bathos, or perhaps, an acid-tongued send-up of one. But nothing about “Diamantino” — from its inventive satire of sport, religion, celebrity and the media to its gently mocking but utterly sincere love for its hero — is quite so easy to nail down.
Part of this is due to the irreverent and eclectic sensibility of Abrantes and Schmidt, longtime collaborators who think nothing of mixing visual effects and 16-millimeter celluloid, or putting Donna Lewis’ “I Love You Always Forever” and Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” on the same soundtrack. But it also has to do with the sheer amount and variety of plot that they keep hurling at you, starting with Diamantino’s monstrous twin sisters (Anabela and Margarida Moreira), who spend every minute verbally abusing their little brother and conspiring to steal his fortune.
These schemes, which range from money laundering to having a mad scientist named Dr. Lamborghini (Carla Maciel) replicate his DNA, are thrown into jeopardy by the appearance of Rahim, Diamantino’s newly adopted son. Rahim, however, turns out to be not a boy from Mozambique but a female Portuguese secret-service agent named Aisha (Cleo Tavares), who has been spying on Diamantino along with her professional and romantic partner, Lucia (Maria Leite).
Rest assured that I’ve given away next to nothing; we are in on Aisha’s ruse from the start. Curiously enough, because Diamantino also serves as the story’s omniscient narrator, he seems to be in on it too, a willing and good-natured victim of everyone else’s jokes and schemes. And I do mean everyone else. Diamantino becomes the pawn of a vast and nefarious right-wing government conspiracy, one that seeks to make him the handsome face of a new Portugal, swollen with master-race rhetoric and determined to follow the U.K. out of the European Union.
All this might make the movie sound like an unusually zany albeit topical riff on the holy-fool narrative, the tale of a beatific soul who is too stupid and too saintly for this world. The key difference is that Diamantino, who is valorized, ridiculed and exploited for his greatness, turns out to be a improbably great hero for his times as well as ours. He may be an over-privileged and dunderheaded celebrity, the kind who has his own blank mug proudly emblazoned on his pillows, but in Cotta’s entirely persuasive performance, he is also a disarmingly sweet and guileless one.
His appetites are those of a child — he appears to subsist on a diet of waffles, whipped cream and Nutella, and he has never had sex or expressed interest in it — but he is a surprisingly good, affectionate father. The story eventually takes a daring turn that mixes hot, gender-fluid romanticism with a splash of body horror, cleverly dismantling the stereotype of white European masculinity that his antagonists want Diamantino to embody.
“Diamantino” too defies expectations. When the movie premiered last year at Cannes (where it won, among other things, the Palm Dog award for its canine performances), it was widely received as a welcome blast of escapism, a departure from the worthy, solemn art cinema that proliferates at international film festivals. But its madcap delirium can’t hide its insistent politics, its disdain for sham populism and its compassion for the disenfranchised. “Diamantino” is no less committed to these ideas than it is to its own uneven, unforgettable lunacy.
In Portuguese with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: Starts June 28, Landmark Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles