A Useful Life starts off as a nostalgic throwback to life at the cinema before the real world intervenes to drag the main character out of the theatre and into the streets, where he gets to experience a very movie-like romance.
Director of Photography:
Original title: La vida útil
Running time: 65 minutes
An opening title card warns us that what we are about to see is not reflective of the real Cinemateca Uruguaya, the South American country’s 50-something-year-old institution sticking up for the seventh art. Perhaps the title card is necessary for local audiences, as the film features not only the premises of the real movie house in the heart of the capital, Montevideo, but also the real-life director, Manuel Martínez Carril, in the same capacity as a fictional character.
Straight after the title card, the film’s entire credits follow, just as they used to in the old days – generally speaking, until the mid-1970s. While we are immediately positioned in the present with the opening image (a FedEx package), the feeling of nostalgia remains, particularly because we see so little from the modern world inside the Cinemateca. It is an environment that is almost hermetically sealed to the passage of time until financial calamity threatens to topple the house of cards in one fell swoop.
The main character is the heavy-set, cream-coloured-suit-wearing, expressionless-’til-the-end Jorge, played by Jorge Jellinek. (As an aside, it is worth noting that everyone is this film is named after the actor or actress that plays them.) He is the manager of the cinema and has been with the institution for half its existence. In fact, he has devoted so much of his life to spreading the gospel of celluloid that he does not have a life beyond the building’s walls and is living with his elderly father.
But the Cinemateca, despite its celebration of the world of fiction, has to face the cold, hard reality of the present: It owes eight months in rent, has a steadily declining viewership and needs to repair its projectors, which would cost a stunning amount of money. And the foundation that has supported them does not have money to waste on what by all accounts appears to be an enterprise that will never recover.
The night of the last picture show comes much more quickly than anyone had anticipated, in spite of Jorge’s tape-recorded plea to the audience before one of its last screenings that, “You need the Cinemateca, and the Cinemateca needs you”. The halls of the cinema are decorated with reminders of the history of the art form – an artistic rendering of Eadweard Muybridge’s galloping horses. The film also contains an encomium to films from years past, such as Alexander Nevsky, in an absolutely mesmerising five-minute-long shot at the halfway mark that is static and unbroken and features Martinez explaining the difference between knowing (facts about) cinema and feeling it.
Luckily for Jorge, the end of this chapter in his life is followed by an adventure of cinematic proportions. In fact, at this point, two-thirds into the film, there should have been a switch to brightly lit Technicolor, because the contrast in tone with what came before is so sharp. But while the artifice is more pronounced, director Federico Veiroj pulls us closer on two occasions by having us see the world from Jorge’s point of view: once, comically, when he takes off his glasses, and another time, more tongue-in-cheek, when he is having his hair washed at the salon.
The Useful Life is not entirely successful at melding the two parts nor at justifying the sudden shift from the one to the other, but the film’s short running time (barely surpassing the one-hour mark) certainly works in its favour. This is a film for cinephiles who can appreciate the poster of Akira Kurosawa’s most expensive film, Ran, in the background when Jorge realises the cinema’s finances are in dire straits, who get shivers down their spines seeing the director serve as Spanish voice-over artist for a screening of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, or anyone else who has been to and experienced the joy of seeing a many-decades-old film on the big screen.
It doesn’t have the passion or the wit of a Cinema Paradiso (after all, these are drastic times for theatres all over the world that are showing non-contemporary or non-commercial films), but its focus on a tiny group of characters keeps our attention and show that movies are always a critical part of a life worth living.