(La vida útil) Uruguay’s Oscar entry as Best Foreign Language film, the medium-length feature “A Useful Life” is initially downbeat in its story of a film programmer whose life takes a movie-ish turn, but becomes a quirky surprise. Not exactly a breath of fresh air, but a different pace of breath at the very least. Set in the real-life, fifty-year-old Cinemateca Uruguaya, director Federico Veiroj, shooting in low-key, ever-so-slightly romantic black-and-white, details the diminishing fortunes of a faded home for film nostalgia. Programmer Jorge, played by film critic Jorge Jellinek, has worked there for twenty-five years and goes through the tasks of running prints, introducing shows, being kind to the aging patrons, re-recording the outgoing answering machine message on a 1970s-style piano-key tape recorder. No longer genteel, but merely shabby, no longer weary, but worn-down, Jorge and his elderly boss (Manuel Martínez Carril, the actual head of the Cinemateca) finally arrive at the day where the back rent comes due and government funding is slashed by a new bureaucrat. Jorge’s romantic gestures toward a kindly teacher whom he recommends come to full bloom, and the movie moves to a low-key screwball kind of hopefulness, and demonstrates that Jorge can still move gracefully into Montevideo’s city night even with his movie-movie perspective still firmly lodged in his heart and mind. Shot in the full frame, “Academy ratio,” the format used at the time of the movies the characters revere. 70m. 35mm. (Ray Pride)
“A Useful Life” plays Saturday, Monday at Siskel. A trailer is below.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.