Review: Federico Veiroj’s “A Useful Life”

What’s looking to be a shoo-in for inclusion on my list of the best films of 2011 is Federico Veiroj’s beautiful, beguiling, and deadpan funny second feature A Useful Life, which screened this January as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s annual “Global Lens” series. The brevity of this 67-minute film belies the rich layers to be found in this elegiac yet hopeful film, which both eulogizes and celebrates the medium of film itself, a medium which is rapidly disappearing (at least in celluloid form), along with the houses in which it is contained. A Useful Life would form an ideal triple bill with Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn and Lisandro Alonso’s Fantasma, two other films which similarly mark the passing of the old-school movie-going experience.A Useful Life follows Jorge (played by Uruguayan film critic Jorge Jellinek), a programmer at the Cinemateca Uruguaya, a repertory and revival movie house which has fallen on hard times of late: its audience and profits are rapidly dwindling, and they are facing eviction from their building. The film details with a subtle, sharp wit the day-to-day, often quite tedious tasks involved in running a cinematheque: dividing up screeners to watch, fixing projectors and broken seats, taking tickets, sitting through boring meetings. Many wordless passages abound, and it is all tied together by the drolly stoic presence of Jorge, who obviously loves and believes a great deal in the importance of his job. And as he is forced out of the cinema cocoon that was his home for 25 years, Jorge is challenged to find a place for himself outside of cinema, and navigate his way through a world sadly oblivious to this art. In one of the film’s best scenes, Jorge gets a measure of revenge against the forces that have robbed him of his livelihood by posing as a law school substitute teacher and delivering a Mark Twain monologue on the art of lying.

Nostalgia and elegy is embedded in A Useful Life’s very design: it was shot in color but printed in black-and-white, and is framed in the 1:33 Academy ratio. The borrowed grand orchestral music, which sounds like pieces of old film scores but actually aren’t, surrounds Jorge’s wanderings and forms an aural backdrop to the shy, tentative romance he pursues with Paola (Paola Venditto), a theater patron he has taken a liking to. Despite its poignant acknowledgement of a passing era, A Useful Life refuses to despair: buildings and institutions may come and go, but cinema always remains.