In “A Useful Life,” director Federico Veiroj assembles a patient character study around the impact of curatorial work on individual experience. Shot in expressive black-and-white and using the Academy ratio, this is a movie about movies that could seem awkwardly familiar to some devout cinephiles.
Uruguayan film critic Jorge Jellinek plays a middle-aged film buff whose world is defined by movies. The reclusive programmer of a struggling cinematheque, Jorge inhabits a landscape dominated by film canisters and consumed by darkness.
Set in a fictionalized version of the Uruguayan Cinematheque (where Veiroj was once employed), “A Useful Life” begins with painstaking details from Jorge’s daily work. His responsibilities range from practical considerations to aesthetic analysis — sifting through DVD submissions, reading translations of Erich Von Stroheim’s “Greed,” conducting a radio show about the program and enduring droll administrative meetings. Jellinek’s flat expression leads to an intentionally ambiguous performance, but it seems likely that Jorge still enjoys the post he has held for 25 years.
A gentle, portly man apparently more engaged with cinema than anything else, his only dissatisfaction appears to be his sex life, as indicated by his uncertainty over the romantic prospects of a regular patron who strikes his fancy. Pacing back and forth outside the theater while she sits through a screening, he quietly rehearses his pickup lines and suddenly “A Useful Life” abandons its formal rigidity for a bittersweet tale of courtship.
Veiroj puts Jellinek’s stable routine into peril when the venue’s loss of sponsorship forces the programmer into the sunlight. Equal parts Nosferatu and Napoleon Dynamite, Jorge wanders aimlessly in the less-certain universe that lies beyond his once-comfortable bubble. Loud bursts of activity overwhelm his senses. Jorge’s main skills lie in his ability to discuss an upcoming retrospective of Manoel de Oliveira films, but he is introduced to a society that could care less.
From the supreme understatement of its first half to the elaborate depiction of Jorge’s subjectivity in its second, Jellinek’s sophomore feature (after the acclaimed teen drama “Acne”) shows how movies can inform a viewer’s perception of reality by skillfully manipulating that very medium.
Uruguay’s official submission for the foreign language Oscar, “A Useful Life” celebrates movies while simultaneously acknowledging the insular nature of watching them. As much as Jorge enjoys his job, it stunts his relationship to everything else. In that regard, the movie has a kinship with “Cinemania,” Angela Christlieb and Stephen Kijak’s 2002 documentary about the lives of viewers addicted to theatrical attendance. Jorge’s plight conveys a plea to seek out experiences in addition to viewing endless interpretations of them. “Cinema,” says Jorge’s boss, “is not a collection of cards or data.” The cinematheque may give Jorge a purpose, but also serves as his prison.
Although readable as a paean to the movie theater, “A Useful Life” also functions as its obituary. Building to a cheerful climax, Veiroj infuses the soundtrack with an orchestral score to evoke how Jorge sees his life in cinematic terms, suggesting that a passion for movies transcends any specific location. Clocking in at an ultra-trim 67 minutes, the story concludes with an mysteriously abrupt finale that may or may not take place inside our hero’s head. Either way, it wholly succeeds as an infectious look at one soldier of cinema losing his battle, but living to fight another day.
criticWIRE grade: A-
“A Useful Life” screens at the Museum of Modern Art from January 13 to January 19.