A Useful Life

By
Oliver Lunn

Recently, many people were quick to say how “beautifully shot” Once Upon A Time In Anatolia was; and it was, just in a very obvious, big landscape-type way. But Federica Veiroj's A Useful Life is far more beautiful. With its simple interior shots and urban walking scenes, the film’s beauty rivals that of any epic Brokeback Mountain-style landscape film.

The story is centred on the Cinemateca in Uruguay, an independent cinema which is gradually going out of business as a result of being unprofitable. The main character, Jorge, has worked at the cinema for over 25 years, passionately programming auteur cinema (his current, and probably last, programme of films includes a Manoel de Oliveira retrospective), so it’s hardly surprising that the news comes as devastating.

A Useful Life is made up of many stunning little moments, often comical, such as when Jorge records a radio show with his colleague who rambles on about film education in a dry and discursive way. It’s funny because it’s a long, deadpan scene shot with a static camera; we watch Jorge hesitate to interject because he’s too polite and respects his colleague. The film teems with such small genius scenes.

To reiterate: this film’s visual beauty isn’t to be found in any sunset-drenched, Cinemascope landscape; it’s in the simple, paired-down framings of the sad character as he walks alone through the near-empty cinema, or likewise alone in the streets of the city. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m someone who picks the urban over the rural, or the small over the epic; I just think that all too often people praise films that have a larger canvas as ‘painterly’, when actually, small interiors or gritty cities can be just as painterly. 

But that to one side, A Useful Life is a fantastic, understated, stunning, tragicomic film, with a protagonist who’s one of the most loveable, Chaplin-esque, characters I’ve encountered in recent years. And, moreover, it’s great to see it in a cinema, if only to have that uncanny world-in-a-world feeling... Just make sure you thank the usher on your way out.

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