Sunday, November 13, 2011

SFFS Artist in Residence Federico Veiroj: A Useful Life

Depicting the imminent closure of Montevideo’s Cinematheque, Federico Veiroj’s A Useful Life (trailer here) might hit too close to home for a lot of art-house theater managers. Yet, the film’s love for cinema and those who treasure it is infectious. Veiroj brings his passion for filmmaking to the San Francisco Film Society as their current Artist in Residence for a screening of Useful this coming Tuesday and a special master class with the director the following Saturday.

A longtime programmer and jack-of-all-trades for the Cinematheque, Jorge’s life is somewhat akin to that of a tenured academic. Unfortunately, their small but loyal base of support is no longer sufficient to keep the high-end art theater in business. At first, Jorge operates largely in denial preparing for the Manoel de Oliveira centennial retrospective (who has amazingly already released two more films since reaching that milestone) as if nothing has happened. Yet, slowly but surely he resolves to begin a new life, starting not with a job search but the halting pursuit of Paola, an attractive law professor and soon to be former patron.

Well cast, Uruguayan film critic Jorge Jellinek perfectly balances Jorge’s pathos and reserved charm. His arc of development is so significant and satisfying, precisely because of its relative modesty. Likewise, as her namesake, Paola Venditto comes across as an attractive and intelligent woman, but not unrealistically unattainable for the slightly more confident Jorge. Veiroj also capitalizes on the Cinematheque itself, whose International style architecture looks striking in black-and-white. Indeed, it brings to mind the glass and concrete of university buildings that initially look rather austere but become comfortable with familiarity.

Useful would make a great double feature with Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist. Though the rumpled Jorge is no matinee idol like George Valentin, both protagonists find their movie careers jeopardized by changing times. Stylistically comparable, both films were shot in color but printed in glorious black-and-white. Though not a silent film, Useful is also rather quiet, relying music (including that of Uruguayan composer Eduardo Fabini) to convey the mood. In fact, both films pay tribute to classic movie musicals in unexpected ways. Perhaps most importantly, they are just excellent films.

Unmistakably paying homage to the auteur cinema of the 1960’s, Useful definitely has much dedicated cineastes will appreciate. Yet, its mature joie de vivre should resonate with wider audiences as well. A subtle but endearing film, it is clearly the work of a major, relatively new voice in Latin American cinema. Indeed, the SFFS artist in residence program now has a short but impressive track record for choosing intriguing filmmakers, following their inaugural selection of Israeli documentarian Ido Haar. Highly recommended, A Useful Life screens this Tuesday (11/15) at the New People Cinema, with Veiroj’s master class From Short to Feature scheduled for Saturday (11/19) at the same venue.