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Carloto Cotta as Diamantino
Carloto Cotta as Diamantino

The OTT Cristiano Ronaldo parody that captures the chaos of a generation

Diamantino was talked about by everyone at Cannes – here we talk to the film’s two young directors about their surreal, camp satire

In 2018 a film called Diamantino played at Cannes film festival, becoming a word-of-mouth sensation and winning the grand prize in the prestigious Critics’ Week sidebar. Co-directed by young filmmakers Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt, the movie was noted for its dizzying accumulation of styles and ideas, from queer pastiche to biting satire, from political parable to comedy of manners. The movie was unmistakably of a new young generation, looking at Europe, sexual and gender identity, celebrity, money, and refugees. It also featured wildly camp imaginary sequences in which its central character, the footballer Diamantino, runs along a football pitch in the company of giant fluffy dogs.

The film centres on Diamantino, a flashy young football football player who might as well be called Ristiano Cronaldo, as he undergoes a footballing crisis, and decides to adopt a son. But Diamantino is the subject of an investigation for ill-gotten gains made by his conniving sisters, and the ‘son’ he believes he has adopted turns out to be an undercover lesbian C.I.A operative investigating him for fraud. As Diamantino becomes the face of a new national campaign, he begins to develop a queasy bond with the ‘young boy’. We caught up with Diamantino’s directors as they were in the UK to unveil the film and present some of their short films at Tate Modern.

How did the film come about - what sort of conversations happened between you?

Daniel Schmidt: We share a lot of similar sensibilities and taste, and an amateur slash experimental approach to cinema, and a fascination with Hollywood. And when this film started it wasn’t trying to be different, it was in the same vein as our previous work but with a little more financing. A lot of our previous works had been historical pieces, or trans-historical pieces, and were a little more oneiric, a little more removed. With this we wanted to move towards something more human, and more contemporary, that dealt with aesthetics of today that interest us and problems of today that scare us.

Gabriel Abrantes: We wanted a character to be a much stronger part of the film. Because our previous films are really inspired by Bresson, or Andy Warhol, or Kenneth Anger – a much more artificial way of working with character and actors. We always wanted to a story about somebody extremely wealthy and privileged adopting somebody from a far less privileged background. We knew we wanted to parody this kind of ‘philanthropic’ adoption process. Madonna was a big inspiration, or Angelina Jolie. And then the film evolved – we ended up writing a version with a soccer player, in Portugal, three months before shooting. We started writing in 2011 and began shooting in 2016, so it took us five years to rewrite everything. But the movie changed country, character – before it was more clearly an Angelina Jolie-type character, more like a Kardashian. There’s one episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians where she goes to Thailand and visits an orphanage, and there’s a cute little Thai girl, and Kin was like, “Oh, can’t I take her home” almost like she was at the dog shelter and fell in love with a cute puppy or something.

And at what point did the gender angle come into play - particularly trans stuff, which seems to be an important theme.

Gabriel Abrantes: Right at the beginning, it was two girls who were in a relationship together, in Haiti, and they pretended to be orphaned sisters to get adopted by a Brazilian woman - and they were trying to rob her, it wasn’t like the C.I.A thing. So it was already playing with romantic comedy, but not having it be according to a heteronomative standard. And then as we kept exploring the film, this idea of the jock who transforms, whose body transforms, and that he is so naive and open… The film talks about a bunch of poltiics, it talks about the refugee crisis, in a very irreverent, transgressive way. For me, his relationship with Aysha, the way it develops, and the fact of it being with an adoptive kid, or what he thinks is an adoptive kid but is actually a lesbian adult spy - and he’s a virgin, and only starts exploring his sexuality when his body starts changing. So to my mind it was somebody who doesn’t even have the consciousness to transition. I think the film is reaching for that at the end, with the voice-over.

“We don’t mean it as a censorship of grim realities of the world, it’s just that looking from a different perspective of optimism gives a new vantage point.” – Gabriel Abrantes

There’s a sweetness to your film, despite the political overtones you’re talking about. For instance, Cristiano Ronaldo has now been caught up in the #MeToo movement. There doesn’t seem to be a modern grimness here.

Daniel Schmidt: I think when we started, we were looking at references like…

Gabriel Abrantes: Sullivan’s Travels.

Daniel Schmidt: Sullivan’s Travels – but even that’s more sweet. Looking at contemporary shows like South Park, these are shows we appreciate but that are a little too scathing or harsh, and I think we were interested in, you know, instead of just lampooning Kim Kardashian or someone like that, we wanted to privilege the human aspect - in this case, Diamantino’s perspective, which is one of naivete. Sweetness, openness. And this goes for everything, from the different crises he’s in to being open to fronting this Brexit-style campaign, to his changing body, to realising his son is somebody other than she’s been pretending to be. We wanted to see the world through the sweetness of those eyes.

Gabriel Abrantes: I was mentioning Sullivan’s Travels, because it’s about this character who thinks he needs to make a tough, hard-hitting film, in order to talk about the economical realities of the world that surrounds him, but then he figures out that comedy is the answer. And that’s a generalisation, there are some great movies that are very grim, that make you want to be active politically - but for us, we get such… I dunno, some people react to the film the way you’re saying, that it was really refreshing to have a film that even when talking about all these realities seems optimistic and offers a happy ending. The happy ending is usually seen as a fake Hollywood lie, but in this case it’s almost the antidote to the “fake news” of reality.

And I suppose in queer films, the happy ending takes on a different aspect because it becomes a kind of dream, or fantasy.

Gabriel Abrantes: Sure, yeah, I think the ending at the beach can be interpreted in a few ways - whether it’s a fantasy or dream, or life after death.

The reason I asked about the tone of your film is that it seems at odds with a current school of cinema that embraces cruelty and pushing the audience out of a place of comfort.

Gabriel Abrantes: Yeah, there’s a bunch of filmmakers that went to school with Daniel, and always when they make a reference it’s like, you know, Haneke. But we consciously wanted to push away from that, in a different direction.

Daniel Schmidt: I think in some way some of these more extreme films are trying to do something different, you know - grapple with the perversions of reality. And in our film, almost, the perversion is hope. That becomes its own way of looking at the world. Hopefully it goes beyond - it satisifies the happy ending, but there’s something more undetermined about happiness.

Gabriel Abrantes: Yeah – you know, there’s a story I was thinking of using for our first film, A History of Mutual Respect, which is these privileged kids burn a guy at a bus stop. Which is a true story that happened in Brasilia - and the guy was actually part of an indigenous community and he was in Brasilia to meet leaders at the senate. And the kids’ father worked at the senate. So anyway, I was telling this story because it really shocked me, and I said can we have it in the movie, and Daniel was like, “Absolutely not, no burning people. Which I think is a smart intuition on Daniel’s part, of moving away from that cinema you were describing.

Daniel Schmidt: We don’t mean it as a censorship of grim realities of the world, it’s just that looking from a different perspective of optimism gives a new vantage point.

“The film has actually been far less well-received in Portgual than in France, or the UK, or the States, because people think it’s an offence to make a parody about a national icon” – Gabriel Abrantes

How did everything that the film has to say about the rise of nationalism in Europe find its way into the movie?

Daniel Schmidt: We’d been writing different versions of this script, and as time was marching forward we wanted to respond as contemporarily as we could. So Brexit happened just before shooting, and Trump was elected while we were shooting. And so after we finished shooting – the shoot was a disaster, that’s one way to describe it – and we were trying to suture together all these half-scenes… almost every scene in the film has a screen in it, whether it’s a TV screen or an iPhone, or a hologram screen – we started to insert into those screens content we had shot or we licenced stock imagery, or we created a caricature of the famous Brexit ad, which appears half way through the film. This was all generated after the fact, as we were becoming more acquainted with those images. In that moment of trying to repair the film, we were able to take a different look at what could be the underlying elements, the narrative of the film.

Gabriel Abrantes: It was always there – “Make Portugal Great Again” and all that kind of stuff. The films we’ve been making are always about a relationship of cinema to a nation. And it all clicked at a certain point - the link between soccer and nationalism, and the myth of this Portuguese king that will one day come back and make Portugal great again. The soccer player plays that in a propaganda video - and how all this is tied up. You mentioned Cristiano Ronaldo – but in Portugal, everybody believes him, which is really shocking. And the film has actually been far less well-received in Portgual than in France, or the UK, or the States, because people think it’s an offence to make a parody about a national icon.

He isn’t a deity here, in the same way, but even outside Portugal there still wasn’t that big a reaction to his case.

Gabriel Abrantes: In the States, a bit. But in Portugal… I suppose I didn’t talk to my peers so much, more like my parents and so on, but yeah, I found that quite shocking.

How does it work, practically, on set, to direct movies as a pair?

Gabriel Abrantes: It’s fun. When I get tired or he gets tired, the other can take over. Even at the writtng stage, I got really exhausted at one point, and Daniel took over for two weeks. We’re a real leaning post for each other I think.

Daniel Schmidt: Yeah, and I can become too afraid, or get arrested and find myself unable to act – and having someone else who’s there, that’s your equal or your brother that you can share an idea with quickly, emboldens us. Three would be very strange, but two seems almost more natural to me than one.

Gabriel Abrantes: We share a bunch of the same humour and I think a lot of it comes down to a shared sense of humour - being on set together or even editing together, we really crack up at the same things. That’s really liberating, and I think that pushes us to do riskier jokes, or weirder jokes, or do goofier things, like the dogs.

You don’t have disagreements?

Daniel Schmidt: We do sometimes but when we’re on set there’s never time, because we’re always trying to perform at a Hollywood image level – the films never get there, but we’re really always trying to do more than we can, so there’s just not the time to have a fight. And then when we get into editing we have more meditative, protracted rhythms that allow for disagreement.

Gabriel Abrantes: Yeah, I don’t think there’s much productivity through friction.

Gabriel, you had a short film playing in Cannes this year, right?

Gabriel Abrantes: I did. It’s about a sad sculpture at the Louvre who is unhappy that she doesn’t mean anything, and so she runs away from the museum and joins a political protest on the street. And she finds out what the real world is like. It’s an animation in 3D – we actually filmed at the Louvre, which was cool. The character is a young ingenue, like Diamantino, and wants to confront the world, but maybe isn’t ready.