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This screwball satirical film is about a footballer who just loves puppies

Portuguese-language story Diamantino is an absurdist 2018 fairytale, complete with incisive commentary on Brexit and Trump

From the get-go, Diamantino, the dynamic debut from Portuguese director duo Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt, establishes itself as an unclassifiable oddity. Take your pick: it’s a queer fairytale, a spy thriller, a screwball satire, an anti-Brexit statement, a sci-fi comedy, a meditation on fame, a character study of an air-headed footballer, and plenty more. It’s also, unsurprisingly, something of a love-it-or-hate-it experience. Still, if you’re not perturbed by the opening few minutes – we witness a stampede of fluffy puppies the size of elephants – then you’re in for a candy-coloured treat. At the very least, you’ll have fun explaining the plot to your perplexed friends.

Then again, only a killjoy wouldn’t cheer on Diamantino. To borrow a sports analogy, the Portuguese-language extravaganza belongs in an absurdist league of its own. The controlled chaos centres around Carloto Cotta as Diamantino Matamouros, the most famous footballer in the world. To cope with the pressure, Diamantino envisions cute, cuddly animals whenever he’s on the field. Which is all well and good, until the striker’s last-minute penalty in a World Cup Final is saved by a furry dog. Suddenly, Diamantino is a public hate figure, and ridiculed on “Pictagram” – a particularly vicious meme reads: “DON’T CRY FOR ME DIA-MAN-TINO.” The fever dream has become a fever nightmare.

To the film’s credit, Diamantino emerges as both the epitome of a vacuous sports star and also intensely likeable. The naive millionaire is depicted as a dopey hunk, an often topless dude who’s oblivious of his hot bod and chiselled muscles. It’s the “she’s beautiful but doesn’t know it” rom-com cliché, but reversed. Plus, various clues suggest the guy’s never thought about sex, let alone actually done the deed, and he emerges as the personification of innocence.

Otherwise known for his role in Miguel Gomes’ Tabu, Cotta carries the film with a sweet, loveably dopey face. He somehow resembles a professional footballer, and yet still earns pathos within pretty much every scene. Look no further than Diamantino at meal time as he sits shirtless, looking glum, and whimpering to his cat, “I’m all alone, Mittens.” It’s hard not to love him. (Diamantino’s physicality and fashion sense is evidently a pastiche of Cristiano Ronaldo – an unfortunate reference, given recent allegations of sexual assault made against him.)

The fear, then, is that a clueless protagonist like Diamantino – think Peter Sellers in Being There – cannot drive a film on his own. And he doesn’t. Abrantes and Schmidt, who also penned the screenplay, populate the screen with Disney villain-esque supporting characters. There’s Diamantino’s identical twin sisters, a pair of scheming siblings who secretly attempt to clone their brother for financial purposes. Then there’s Aisha, a lesbian spy who disguises herself as a teen boy to get into his bed – to investigate his tax history, of course. And, as a subplot, Diamantino finds himself tricked into fronting a campaign to vote Portugal out of the EU; a TV spot, which takes advantage of the footballer’s celebrity image, promises that building a wall across the country’s borders will “make Portugal great again”. There’s no red hat, but you get the gist.

“If you also factor in the zany subplots involving gender-swapping, a B-movie scientist called Dr Lamborghini, and Diamantino’s well-meaning desire to solve the refugee crisis, Diamantino may sound like too much of a good thing”

So take this as a warning: the story arc of a shameless pro-Brexit campaign will particularly sting for UK audiences (the film, incidentally, plays at this year’s London Film Festival). Of course, the country is Portugal, not the UK, but the satire is still relevant. An advertisement complains that the EU costs 30 million Euros per week, and “in exchange for what? Open borders, a lack of sovereignty.” It’s a movement dripping in barely disguised xenophobia and false promises that only a moron could believe in. Again, it’s a film that’ll particularly sting for UK audiences.

If you also factor in the zany subplots involving gender-swapping, a B-movie scientist called Dr Lamborghini, and Diamantino’s well-meaning desire to solve the refugee crisis, Diamantino may sound like too much of a good thing. Thankfully, the direction and storytelling are remarkably cohesive. The visuals, shot on 16mm, are a Technicolor cocktail of Jean-Luc Godard, Guy Maddin and an episode of Thunderbirds. The events are fast-paced but rarely confusing; the madcap escalations belong in one single universe, held together by a calm, matter-of-fact monologue. When it soars, it soars – Donna Lewis’s “I Love You Always Forever” is transformed from a forgotten radio hit into the movie’s annoyingly catchy heart and soul.

Many of us enjoy cinema for its escapism, and a surreal arthouse fantasy about a mindless footballer sounds like a perfect distraction from the prospect of a “no deal” Brexit. But Diamantino, with its scathing commentary on how the media has allowed a right-wing uprising, remains relevant up until the final whistle. The actual turning point for Diamantino is the discovery of the refugee crisis: from his private yacht and mansion, the only suffering he knew of involved a red card – but suddenly he learns of real-world suffering. That an absurdist farce is more topical than most so-called serious dramas is telling and worrying. It’s often said that these are crazy times we’re living in – and finally, here’s a film that reflects it, fluffy puppies and all.

Diamantino plays at this year's London Film Festival on October 19 and 20