As a low-budget, high-kitsch, torn-from-the-headlines pop-culture football fantasy, the new comedy Diamantino is a Premier League oddity. When I first watched it at the New York film festival, I was jet-lagged and couldn’t be certain whether I had dozed off and imagined entire sequences. Revisiting the picture six months later, it transpires that none of it was a dream – not the colossal Pekingese puppies gambolling around on the pitch in a dense pink mist, nor the secret service lesbians who spy on the eponymous dopey football star, nor the far-right organisation that plans to produce clones of the striker to promote Portugal’s campaign to leave the EU and construct a wall sealing the country off, somewhat pointlessly, from Spain.
“It’s got an oneiric vibe, for sure, so falling asleep would’ve been totally fine,” says Connecticut-born Daniel Schmidt, when I meet him and his Portuguese-American co-director Gabriel Abrantes. Schmidt is anything but precious about how the movie is seen: “I was telling an audience recently, ‘Feel free to whip out your phones while it’s on, check your email, check the news, whatever.’ The film is porous and it has that overloaded element. People have said, ‘It barely holds together!’ But we wanted to test the boundaries of what one film could contain because that seems very expressive of the current moment. Why not add one more ingredient by looking at your phone?”
The pair, who are both 35, started writing Diamantino in 2011. Back then, their central character was a Kardashian-style reality TV star. The decision to make the film in Portugal – and the influence of two sports-related David Foster Wallace essays (How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart and Roger Federer As Religious Experience) – steered the subject toward football.
“South Park was a huge inspiration, too,” says Abrantes. “It was always full of events from the week before. That topicality was important to us. When we started, there was no Brexit, no Trump presidential bid, no plan for a border wall. We took the language for the Portugal leave campaign directly from the Leave ads in the UK.”
Schimdt chips in: “It’s satire, but I wouldn’t say it’s biting. It’s not Armando Iannucci. We tried to treat everything democratically, whether it was the refugee crisis or social media addiction. They’re all worth examining, and the audience is fast and smart enough to pick up on the briefest of our allusions. Though, in 20 years, the film’s going to need footnotes.”
That said, its queer sensibility at least makes it seem ahead of its time. One character crossdresses to get closer to Diamantino, while another blithely accepts an accidental change in gender, turning the film into something like a screwball comedy for the Instagram era. The goofy innocence of the title character, played by Carloto Cotta, is reflected in a homemade aesthetic reminiscent of Michel Gondry, though the film-makers laugh when I ask if the DIY visuals were intentional.
“We were trying our hardest!” Schmidt says. “We’d have made it look like Ratatouille if we could,” adds Abrantes. To save money, they followed special effects tutorials on YouTube. “There was one called How to Do Iron Man Holograms in After-Effects,” Abrantes says. “It’s some 13-year-old kid teaching you. I loved doing it. It was like Lego.”
Their inventiveness won them the 2018 Critics’ week grand prize at Cannes, and Abrantes is back at the festival this month with a semi-animated short film about a sculpture that abandons its plinth at the Louvre to go out into the streets and protest – a metaphor for art with a political purpose.
Those enormous frolicking Pekingese, which the hero hallucinates whenever he is about to go into goal-scoring mode, grabbed most of the attention on the festival circuit. Diamantino has quickly become the “giant puppies” movie in the same way that There’s Something About Mary is associated with “hair gel” or Fatal Attraction with bunny-boiling.
“We thought it would be the Nutella crepes that people latched on to,” says Abrantes, referring to Diamantino’s favourite meal. “Or that it would become known as ‘the Cristiano Ronaldo movie’.” They’re quick to point out, though, that the character isn’t based on the Real Madrid star. “I certainly don’t think Ronaldo sees puppies on the field when he’s playing,” Schmidt says. “He probably sees himself,” adds Abrantes.
• Diamantino is out now.