How did a socially repressive inferno with no great football-soccer tradition to speak of land the 2022 World Cup? It absolutely, positively could not have been corruption, so who’s to say? Nevertheless, a controversial real life referee-turned heroin smuggler has inspired an unflattering depiction of crooked sports officiating that makes you wonder. The grudge match will not be played on an even field in Paolo Zucca’s The Referee (trailer here), which screens during the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual series, Open Roads: New Italian Cinema.
The top-ranked Montecrastu team and its wealthy captain have always manhandled the cellar-dwelling team from hardscrabble Pabarile without resorting to bribery. However, their respective fortunes turn around when the naturally gifted Matzutzi returns from Argentina. Suddenly, he is leading the ragtag Pabarile squad to victory and might just catch Montecrastu in the Sardinian standings.
Such provincial games should be well beneath Cruciani, a rising star amongst the fictional FEFA’s corps of referees. He is determined to call the championship match, but his shady mentor might not be offering him the best advice. Needless to say, games at both levels will be decided by some questionable calls, before the two storylines intersect.
On paper, The Referee sounds like the perfect salve for fans nursing a “we-was-robbed” grievance, but it is so overstuffed with quirky rustics, it never fully establishes the central rivalry. Likewise, Patrizio Patrizi’s balck-and-white cinematography is pretty as heck, but might be too stylized for Zucca and co-writer Barbara Alberti’s scrappy underdog story.
Still, Jacopo Cullin is likably earnest as Matzutzi, the awkward sad sack in all aspects of life not involving football. Stefano Accorsi’s Cruciani is also strangely effective combining broad physical humor with self-defeating pathos. Nor could anyone accuse Francesco Pannofino (the Italian Nero Wolfe) of holding back as the outrageously partisan referee Mureno.