There is a certain patience to Federico Veiroj’s “A Useful Life” that sets it apart. Produced just across the Río de la Plata from last year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar winner – Juan José Campanella’s “The Secret in Their Eyes” – Veiroj’s second feature resigns itself from the high-gloss/high-profile aesthetic that links a recent string of films from the contemporary Latin American cinema. “A Useful Life” is different; not as a counterpoint or alternative, but as an essentially and inherently diametric counter-current to prevailing preconceptions of the region’s cinema. If Fernando Solanas and Ocatvio Getino once described the role of the camera in Latin American cinema as “a gun that shoots twenty-four frames per second,” Veiroj reconfigures its role to that of a curious observer. “A Useful Life” is, after all, a film about cinephilia – about the pleasure of watching.
The Uruguayan director first broke through with “As Follows,” the short film that allowed him to produce his 2006 debut feature, “Acne,” which premiered at Cannes and went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at L.A.’s AFI Festival. He is following up that success with “A Useful Life,” which is currently enjoying a theatrical run at New York’s Museum of Modern Art through January 19. “A Useful Life” tells the story of Jorge, a middle-aged staff member who has spent twenty-five years working at the Cinemateca Uruguaya. Jorge is the theater’s most devoted employee but when low-attendance forces the Cinemateca to shut down, his life takes an unexpected turn.
According to Veiroj, however, “A Useful Life” began as a very different project. Having been professionally involved with the Cinemateca Uruguaya and Spain’s Filmoteca Española, his original screenplay was about a 28 year-old who returns to the Montevideo art house cinema after a sojourn in Madrid. “We kept the rhythm, the pacing, the locales, the overall millieu and the romantic decadence of the Cinemateca,” explained the director in a conversation with indieWIRE.
The most important change to the project came after Veiroj met the film critic Jorge Jellinek, rewriting the screenplay to suit a middle-aged character. It wouldn’t be the last revision to the film’s narrative. “We had a number of scenes in the screenplay that took place in the home and that explored Jorge’s family life,” said Veiroj. “We filmed a number of those scenes and I edited a montage from them, but during the editing process, I realized that I didn’t need to show the character’s domestic life because it was only there to serve as a transition to his professional side.”
The result is obvious; the entire first half of “A Useful Life” is dominated by the camera’s attention of Jorge’s routine at the Cinemateca, rarely leaving the confines of the institution. Veiroj’s direction romanticizes the mundane monotony of Jorge’s daily life at the cinema. His camera often dwells on scenes for a couple of seconds after their dramatic conclusion, lingering to depict the quiet profundity of empty spaces in a manner that recalls Michelangelo Antonioni’s deliberate lack of stylistic flair. Cuts are sparse, shots are lengthy, and the camera rarely leaves a fixed perspective.
Structuring the film’s first half around the interior space of the Cinemateca changed the story’s development as well. “We rewrote the second part of the film to fit in with the first half,” the director confessed. “What we had originally planned to shoot for the second part of it was discarded after we saw the power and direction of the first half. We asked ourselves, ‘What comes next?’ It was an interesting challenge for the production team because it made us rewrite something that already had a life to it. Looking at the film now, as a spectator, I feel it was the right decision.”
The two halves of the film combine for a running time of 63 minutes, a bold choice that presents obvious challenges for distributors. Veiroj, however, defends his decision to keep the film at its present length. “‘Acne’ was made in a more standard way, under more traditional working conditions with a comfortable budget and in a specific timeframe,” he explains. “It was a film that got a theatrical release in some countries but not in others, like in the United States where it only had a festival run.”
“‘A Useful Life,’ on the other hand, was made by a group of close friends working for free during a shoot that was finished in record timing. Additionally, it is a black-and-white film with a short running time that deals with very specific subjects. Despite that, ‘A Useful Life’ might end up reaching more screens than ‘Acne’ even though it is a film that went through a less traditional mode of production. What I conclude from these experiences is that in the end one has to make the film that they want to make. That’s why the film has its running time – because it’s the running time that the film had to have. It doesn’t stem from a rebellious spirit. From a narrative level, I just don’t see why the film should be any longer.”
“A Useful Life” emphasizes the hidden comforts of the quotidian, building a brief and bright narrative about our relationship to the places that make up our daily life. Veiroj sees this as one of the work’s universal strengths, “It is the sort of connection anyone can have with a coffee shop or the newsstand they visit every day. [Cinephilia] becomes a sort of routine, the type one finds in an amorous relationship or with personal customs like eating dinner at a certain time,” explains the director.
“This type of relationship is common with cinephiles and repertory theaters,” he added. “The same sentiment can be found in the daily chat you have with your neighbor or the connection an agronomist might have with a field – it is not an experience that is exclusive or even specific to the love of cinema.”
Uruguayan cinema has raised its profile considerably over the last decade. “A Useful Life” places Federico Veiroj alongside a host of other filmmakers currently at the forefront of a new era of Latin American cinema, an era with an array of films as diverse as the countries and cultures it represents.