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Movie Review

Making the beautiful game more beautiful (maybe)

Laurentiu Ginghina (left) and director Corneliu Porumboiu in the documentary “Infinite Football.”
Laurentiu Ginghina (left) and director Corneliu Porumboiu in the documentary “Infinite Football.” (Courtesy of Grasshopper Films)

Laurentiu Ginghina, who looks like a cross between Joe Pesci and Andy Kaufman, possesses a glum sweetness. A middle-aged Romanian civil servant, he has a job whose purposeless paper-shuffling could come right out of Kafka. He has an even greater affinity with a very different author, Nick Hornby.

The book that made Hornby’s reputation is “Fever Pitch,” that paean to soccer obsession. Or football, as the rest of the world calls the sport. Yet where Hornby’s obsession has to do with rooting (for the English team Arsenal), Ginghina’s has to do with reinventing. Even if the number of ideas he has to improve the sport don’t quite live up to the title of “Infinite Football,” Corneliu Porumboiu’s documentary about Ginghina, there certainly are a lot. The fact that they’re all either unworkable, ridiculous, or both simply adds to the charm of this extremely low-key film.

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As a documentary subject, Ginghina would seem as unworkable as his soccer improvements. The latter include making the pitch octagonal and limiting the number of players who can cross midfield. “The purpose is this: We increase the ball’s speed by decreasing the players’ speed,” he says. “The ball is the star,” he says, “the ball has to be free.” This is soccer as played in Plato’s cave; and, yes, Ginghina does cite both Plato and Eastern philosophy as part of his motivation.

Yet what makes this mild-mannered man compelling and this very talky film affecting isn’t his soccer proposals. To see Ginghina stand before a pair of magnetized whiteboards and explain his rules changes is to appreciate the narrative punch of PowerPoint. No, it’s the absolute single-mindedness his vision springs from.

“Infinite Football” is about soccer in much the same way that “Psycho” is about celebrating Mother’s Day or “Fitcarraldo” about unconventional approaches to music appreciation. In fact, the director of that film, Werner Herzog, would surely recognize Ginghina as a sweet-tempered version of the monomanical protagonists he’s drawn to.

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As filmmaking, “Infinite Football” could hardly be simpler. It has only a few settings: a hockey rink, once a soccer pitch, where Ginghina suffered a broken leg; a factory, where he suffered another broken leg (hard luck, thy name is Laurentiu Ginghina); his office; an indoor soccer field, which is the one time we see any of his rules put to the test; his apartment. Within those settings, there are a few cuts, nothing fancy. That’s it. A cinematic bicycle kick “Infinite Football” is not.

Porumboiu, a mainstay of the Romanian New Wave, is best known as the director of the fiction films “12:08 East of Bucharest” (2006) and “Police, Adjective” (2009). He’s often seen on-camera: part interlocutor, part sidekick.

“You’re returning to rules which didn’t work properly,” Porumboiu tells Ginghina at one point, kindly but firmly. During the indoor-soccer sequence, a former first division Romanian coach says to Ginghina, “I think you’re confusing things.”

It’s true. Ginghina has to keep adjusting his adjustments. He’s like a medieval astronomer, trying to make the Ptolemaic system work, creating epicycles to account for flaws in his system — not realizing that it’s his system that’s flawed.

Understandably enough, that’s not how Ginghina sees it. Without in any way getting carried away with the comparison, he likens himself to Superman and Spider-Man. “Their extremely boring lives, professionally speaking, strongly contrast with their superhero activities . . . . I feel a bit like those heroes. I’m here, filing documents, but in my double life I revolutionize sport.”

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Even if the second half of the previous sentence is nonsense, which it is, you can see why Ginghina feels as he does — and how a film that starts out strictly cinéma vérité in style very quickly becomes strictly cinema absurdité in content. Reality is Ginghina’s kryptonite, and he’d look foolish wearing a cape. But isn’t that true of the rest of us? It’s unclear whether “Infinite Football” is more tragedy or comedy, and in that lack of clarity lies something like wonderment.

★ ★ ★

INFINITE FOOTBALL

Written and directed by: Corneliu Porumboiu. At Museum of Fine Arts, various dates, March 1-20. 70 minutes. Unrated.


Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.