A Useful Life

Jorge (Jorge Jellinek) has lived his life entirely for cinema. Working as the programmer for the local cinematheque in Montevideo, his days and nights are taken up with lovingly choosing the films to screen, taking care of the equipment, testing the seats and hosting a local radio show promoting upcoming events. It might be that his audience has thinned to a trickle of four or five people, but he’s happy. He gets to greet the odd director whose nostalgia has dragged them back to the place where they fell in love with their craft, watch the films he cherishes so dearly and although things certainly aren’t about to get exciting – why would he need them to? He lives, and has always lived, vicariously through the stories he sees in the moving pictures and in 25 years they have never let him down.

However, the times they are a-changing, and it’s not long before we learn that Jorge’s beloved cinema is being closed down due to its lack of financial stability. Jorge deals with the news as he presumably has always dealt with everything; stoically, passively, and by staring at the events unfolding in front of him as if they are part of yet another narrative he can switch on and off. As it slowly (and I mean slowly) dawns upon Jorge that his life is going to either end or begin, we witness his tentative steps towards reality. But, well into his forties and with more than a passing resemblance to a slightly more comfy Alfred Molina, is it already too late for the man finally being forced to live life rather than watch it?

With A Useful Life clocking up just over an hour of screen-time, no-one can can accuse director Federico Veiroj of being over-indulgent. Indeed, the canny direction and unemotional editing is A Useful Life‘s saviour – transforming what could have been a deeply pretentious, terribly dull homage to A Life Of Boredom into a charming, knowing and effective little comedy-drama. Showing just enough of Jorge’s menial, day-to-day existence to create an atmosphere of one paralysed by life, but constantly adding a darkly comic edge (a scene where Jorge desperately, silently and hopelessly tries to interrupt a fellow enthusiast’s radio rant is just lovely), Veiroj creates a thoroughly sympathetic and heartbreaking protagonist. The score is brilliantly constructed, a jangling, jarring mix of rousing film soundtracks that often feel totally absurd decorating these scenes of banality, but serve to perfectly highlight the tragic difference between Jorge’s fantasy life borne of years of cinematic dreaming, and his underwhelming reality.

In the end, the very act of getting a haircut drips with personal significance, and as Jorge gradually, maddeningly works up the courage to ask a regular punter out on a date, it’s impossible to tell whether he is setting himself up for success or failure. Like Jorge himself, A Useful Life is a rather quiet, unassuming addition to Spanish cinema, but ultimately it’s worthy of your attention.

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