As the credits roll at the conclusion of FIFA’s latest brush with controversy, the $31 million box office failure, United Passions, one thing becomes immediately apparent. For all the thought-provoking and critically-minded essays criticizing the film as financially irresponsible and an example of FIFA’s fascist-leanings, the film is a smashing success, on both an artistic and intellectual level.
Like Night of the Hunter, Citizen Kane and The Newton Boys, United Passions is the latest entry in a long canon of films released ahead of their time only to garner a chilly reception from the general public. But if there’s anything we can draw from popular culture, it’s that the general public can’t be trusted to properly assess artistically progressive films. Where your average moviegoer might sit through United Passions and see an aimless, incoherent propaganda piece, an experienced student of film sees a post-modern deconstruction of society and sport. Considering that I took one semester of Film History, I’m more than qualified to guide you through all of the film’s outstanding achievements.
As soon as the credits roll, the film begins to toy with notions of Jungian philosophy, corporatism and post-modernist economic philosophy. Rather than immediately tear into FIFA’s history, the film instead begins in modern times, with an ethnically diverse cast of boys and one ethnically ambiguous girl coming together to play a game of soccer in a crumbling stadium as elders look on from the balconies of long-abandoned residential towers. Presumably a tongue-in-cheek nod to the dystopian film’s trend, as well as the hyper-sexualization of women in sport, with the girl the only participant wearing a sweater in what appears to be a blistering summer day, the movie quickly jaunts into the past, leaving us to question the nameless children of the future who split rations based upon their athletic prowess.
The progression of time in this film is a character unto itself. Unreliable, deceptive and unremitting, as no real-life history exists which mirrors the events depicted in the film, we’re left to consider one of the film’s major post-modern themes: the degradation of memory that comes as time passes. Major characters are left unnamed, included only to read lines of exposition, just as the way our memory justifies our behavior as we think to the past.
Eventually we find ourselves watching a series of meetings between representatives of FIFA and the English FA in the early 1900s, a crucial scene that speaks to the manner in which we project our emotions on others. The English are depicted as haughty, ruthless bargainers, with a penchant for racism and sexism, just as many would claim of modern FIFA. More than just a throwaway scene, the filmmakers, and FIFA as well, seem to be using the English as a vessel for themselves. It’s a fascinating technique. When the English representative disparages the Zulu, uses the n-word and laughs at the notion of women playing the sport, it’s really FIFA attempting to compartmentalize its modern struggle.
“But young lady, the natives of Africa are stupid and undisciplined. It’s just their nature. How could they possibly be expected to appreciate the subtleties of a game invented by the whites?” This is therapy through art.
After a prolonged subplot detailing FIFA’s opposition to Hitler, Mussolini and the rise of fascism, including a scene in which Jules Rimet prays before a wooden cross as it rains outside his window (a subtle homage to Ingmar Bergman), the film transitions to the Maracanazo. As Brazil struggle to prevent a Uruguayan win, Rimet begins to walk through an underground tunnel to present the trophy to the winners. Juxtaposing religion and sport, Rimet has what can only be described as a near-death experience, seeing a bright light as he makes his way through the tunnel. Forcing the viewers to confront their own beliefs, the question for the audience asks whether the film is being intentionally ironic. Is FIFA arguing that universal truths are imagined fictions? Are both religion and sport distractions that prevent us from finding real, experiential truth? Or perhaps the film has drifted into a type of meta-criticism, using a clichéd device as a trap for fans-cum-critics eager to dismiss FIFA’s artistic ambitions.
But what does the film say about post-modern economics? In a series of scenes that trail Sepp Blatter’s efforts to find funding for a near-bankrupt FIFA, the film explicitly speaks to the manner in which traditional capitalism is premised on heterosexual maleness. At no point do any female characters take part besides a secretary to then-FIFA President João Havelange tending to the president while he swims topless, emphasizing the freedom of masculinity to restrained feminism (the allusion to the genderism in FIFA’s history couldn’t be any clearer). Later, when an adidas representative repeats the word ‘ball’ 18 times during a meeting with Blatter, the symbolism drapes over the narrative.
The film takes the concept of a plot for granted, speaking to the directionless nature of man. Choosing instead to force the viewer to independently research the chain of events, the film creates a communal experience between viewer and director. Eventually, this communal relationship coalesces into a discussion on morality.
Sepp Blatter, now president of FIFA, struggles to defend himself in the face of accusations of financial impropriety. Meeting with former president João Havelange, a conversation between the two meditates on whether morals are life-affirming truths.
Blatter: “I knew I wasn’t joining the Chess Club.”
Havelange: “Anyway, how many votes are you sure of for your reelection?”
Blatter: “Eight I can count on.”
Havelange: “Okay, so you need 13 to win, which means you’re five short. This is not impossible. What you need is five indecisive members. And you make them yours. You know, Sepp, indecisive people are easily managed.”
Is that conversation a call to move away from traditional social expectations? Regardless, a belief in the non-existence of life-affirming truths and morals is a bold, if melancholic acknowledgement. There is a heavy atmosphere that lurks under the film’s cheery exterior.
The end of the film soon comes, with Blatter succeeding in his reelection bid. As the film closes, a voiceover summarizes FIFA’s growth from a neglected organization to an arbiter of sport across the world, asking the question ‘who could have believed this’ as video of a girl scoring a goal fades to black.
Yes, who could have believed this? That such an exciting and innovative film would be made in an error of conservatism where each new films is a retread of another? Art is bold. Art is frantic. Art is.