In this 67-minute featurette, Uruguyan director Federico Veiroj invites us to observe an exceptional strand of film culture – reminiscent of cinephilia in the 1960s – that has been preserved and rarified at the Cinemateca Uruguaya in Montevideo in his docu-fictional film, A Useful Life. The film stands out as a valiant tribute to the love of cinema with its earnest portrayal of the shutdown of the cinematheque and how it affects one of its most devoted employees. Interestingly enough, the film was shot in colour but is made all the more visceral and antiquated by the film’s conversion to a solemn use of black and white.
Revolving around the character of Jorge, played by the real-life film critic turned actor, Jorge Jellinek, we see him endure and bear witness to the closure of the beloved cinema with which he has had a close relationship over his 25-year career. Initially, the highbrow film culture that has been cultivated by Jorge and the cinema’s actual former officer-in-chief, Manuel Martinéz – who agreed to play himself – is introduced by day-to-day tasks that involve reviewing short and feature films to progamme, managing a collection of film reels and running a specialised radio show devoted to in-depth discussions about the history of arthouse cinema. However, we become aware of the theatre’s demise due to maintenance challenges, as well as the significant withdrawal of funds by the financial committee which claims to have satisfied the cinematheque’s every request over the past 10 years but which no longer has the means to invest in non-profitable cultural institutions. The disappointment and betrayal experienced by Jorge is felt as much by the film lovers watching the movie.
As audiences still queue to see films at the venue and are ushered into the cinema, we hold onto the hope that daily routines will not be interrupted just yet. Jorge also welcomes a local director whose fictional film, Febrero, is being screened before their seasonal programme of Portuguese cinema begins, and celebrates a century since the great filmmaker, Manoel de Oliveira’s, birth. The director introduces his movie and notes what an honour it is to present it at the cinema where he saw the first films that inspired his filmmaking career.
The first of two seminal monologues delivered in the film extols the virtues that the cinemathque has achieved in educating and building an audience of cinephiles. Martinéz speaks at length on Jorge’s radio show about the topic and the technical aspects which imbue cinema with meaning and engage sensitive and alert viewers. It is moments such as these that foster an appreciation of the film for cinema devotees and make it a must-see. However, Jorge hurries Martinéz to finish because he is aware that it is exactly this kind of niche discussion that may be alienating more commercial audiences from which the cinema would stand to gain financially.
The tension up until this point is relieved by a montage of Jorge and Martinéz returning to their daily affairs, scored by a traditional song from which we attempt to extract meaning that relates to the film. We see Jorge pack his bag and leave the cinema, which signals the turn Jorge’s life will take, as he has to face a reality in the outside world that he is neither ready for nor emotionally equipped to handle. He cries and wipes away tears on a bus ride in the city and it is deeply saddening to watch him grieve.
Jorge wastes no time in pursing a love interest by the name of Paola, who is open to a certain degree of film-going and accepts his invitation to accompany him to the movies that night. As he waits for her to finish teaching a class at a nearby University of Law, Jorge pretends to be a substitute teacher and delivers a marvelously audacious speech to a group of students, as an attempt to process his feelings.
The film’s title encourages us to consider what it means to lead ‘a useful life’ for both the character and people in general, which deepens an already brazen and enlightening work that is quite unlike anything else about cinephilia.
A Useful Life was released in UK cinemas on 13 January 2012.