“Diamantino” is nothing less (and so much more) than the movie the world needs right now. Co-directed by Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt, this winningly demented 21st century fairy tale centers on a beautiful, child-like soccer phenom named Diamantino who reacts to a devastating World Cup loss by adopting a Mozambican refugee who claims to be a teen boy but is actually an adult lesbian on an undercover mission from the Portuguese government to investigate a money-laundering operation run by the athlete’s evil twin sisters. Also, there’s a mad scientist who’s trying to clone Diamantino in order to create an invincible super team capable of stoking national pride and “Making Portugal Great Again.” Also, there are giant puppies. A lot of them. A litter of Pekingese the size of double-decker buses. And that’s just the basic set-up.
Unfolding like a blissful cross between Guy Maddin’s lo-fi surrealism and Jeff Koons’ candied indecency — the directors have cited “an anarchy of references” — “Diamantino” is a frothy and infectiously sweet film that bubbles with the madness of the modern world, and dares to suggest a way forward that’s as simple as the moral at the end of a children’s story (hint: it has something to do with choosing love over apathy or exploitation).
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In that sense, this could be seen as a naïve film about dark times, but its naïvete is essential to its charm; it pierces through all the zaniness in order to provide some kind of guiding light. You don’t expect such an irreverent, tongue-in-cheek pastiche to have any courage in its convictions, but that sincere belief in simple goodness is what makes “Diamantino” greater than the sum of its many kitschy parts. Well, that and those giant puppies.
“Tabu” standout Carlota Cotta (sculpted here to be a dead ringer for Cristiano Ronaldo) is Diamantino, the pride and glory of Portugal. The film opens with a trip inside his pure and hollow mind, which is filled with the stray thoughts that his loving father once planted there: The masses used to flock to cathedrals. The Sistine Chapel gave faith to people. Soccer stadiums are the cathedrals of our time. Diamantino gives faith to people.
And when this happy idiot steps foot on the pitch, the outside world fades away, and his field of vision is overrun by images of massive fluffy puppies running around a cloud of pink soap bubbles. For 90 minutes (plus stoppage time, however that works), Diamantino is in a blissful world of his own design. But then — in the seconds before a heart-stopping penalty kick during the dying seconds of the World Cup final — the puppies disappear, and our hero blows the shot so badly that his father drops dead at the sight of it. Shaken to his core and ashamed to be seen in public, Diamantino decides to broaden his horizons and find another way to give faith to people.
So, in a move that’s broadly misinterpreted as a PR stunt (because nobody understands how pure and simple their country’s brightest star really is), Diamantino invites a silent refugee named “Rahim” to be his son and live with him forever in his giant mansion. Rahim, of course, is really a beautiful adult woman named Aisha (Cleo Tavares), who’s going undercover against the wishes of her jealous girlfriend (who sometimes drops by disguised as a nun), but Diamantino isn’t cynical enough to suspect that anything is amiss; he welcomes Rahim into his life with such immediate love and affection that Aisha might never want to leave. She might even get used to sleeping under a bedspread that’s been screen-printed with her foster daddy’s smiling face.
Alas, Diamantino’s cruel, money-grubbing twin sisters (Anabela and Margarida Moreira) prove to be somewhat less accommodating. And Aisha will have to spend a fair bit of time with the two of them, as Diamantino spends every afternoon being zapped and scanned in the secret government laboratory where a mad scientist is trying to clone his body and distill his talent. Naturally, this process requires Diamantino’s DNA to be crossed with a clownfish, which — as everyone remembers from grade school biology — results in the soccer phenom growing a small pair of breasts (crudely green-screened over Cotta’s pecs as part of a sight gag that epitomizes the film’s genius for humiliating bad politics with even worse special effects).
For such an eccentric and uninhibited piece of work, it’s disappointing that “Diamantino” skirts around its increasingly complex sexual dynamics; that avoidance results in a lot of muted possibilities (and at least one eyebrow-raising twist in the third act), as a more nuanced and/or explicitly queer caricature of otherness and human fluidity gives way to a broad message about the power of acceptance. It’s easy to appreciate why this technicolor glitter bomb of a movie wants to stay light on its feet and avoid getting hung up on any one of its umpteen ideas, but that particular subplot leaves too much on the table.
Fortunately, there’s precious little risk of leaving “Diamantino” unfulfilled, as the sum of what Abrantes and Schmid have accomplished is greater than any of its 16mm flourishes, narrative oddities, and note-perfect details (e.g. the smile on Diamantino’s face as he blasts “I Love You Always Forever” from the driver’s seat of his sports car, Donna Lewis’ vaporous pop ballad reborn as a personal anthem). Held together by a fully committed ensemble, and character work that allows the film to have its heart on its sleeve with its tongue still in cheek and its heart on its sleeve — Cotta’s guileless turn results in one of the most lovable idiots in a very long time — “Diamantino” is a wildly entertaining tale of a civilization that’s clinging to the last of its morals, and of one man whose goodness might create a dozen more just like him. Part B-movie spoof, part handcrafted satire, and always driven by a genuine vision for a better tomorrow, “Diamantino” is like looking at today’s Europe through a funhouse mirror, and somehow seeing it more clearly as a result.
“Diamantino” is screening at the 2018 New York Film Festival. Kino Lorber will release it in theaters in April 2019.