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The perfect soccer referee: mum’s the word

File photo of Italian filmmaker Paolo Zucca.
By Pablo Suárez
For the Herald

Filmmaker Paolo Zucca tells the Herald about his blend of sports and cinema

One of the many outstanding features of the cycle Cinema Made in Italy is doubtlessly L’arbitro / El árbitro / The Referee, by Paolo Zucca, an inventive, accomplished opera prima that follows the fate of the Atletico Pabarile, no less than the worst team of the Sardinian third league, which is constantly humiliated by Montecrastu, a much-loved team.

Yet, when young Matzutzi comes back to town, Atletico Pabarile starts winning one match after another. Soon enough, the story of the two teams intertwines with that of Cruciani (Stefano Accorsi), an ambitious referee at the highest international level. From then on, a story of blind ambitions unfolds. Filmmaker Paolo Zucca recently spoke to the Herald about how his debut film came into being.

Before L’arbitro, the feature film, there was a short film, and prior to that a short-story.

Yes, I wrote the short story ten years ago. I’d read that Samuel Beckett’s favourite sentence was one that belonged to Saint Augustine: “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned,” and I immediately thought I wanted to write something about the two thieves. And at the time, I was also reading the works of Osvaldo Soriano, particularly the short story El penal más largo del mundo. He is very well known in Italy, he used to write for the newspaper Il manifesto. So the short story I wrote was kind of a mix between the idea of the two thieves and Soriano’s environment.

What would be Soriano’s environment?

Soccer at a low level in a mythical place, a place of the soul and the imagination; for Soriano, it’s Patagonia; for me, it’s Sardinia. With a sense of the grotesque, as well as the poetic and lyrical side of soccer. The possibility of everything inside a soccer game. In my imaginary Sardinia, I found my own personal Patagonia.

How about your short story?

One of the thieves is a referee sent to Sardinia for having been caught in a corruption scandal; the other thief is a countryman who occasionally steals lambs. In a soccer game one of them is saved — that is the referee; but the other one is damned and gets killed. In 2009, I turned this short story into a short film, which did very well in many film festivals, among them Clermont-Ferrand. So I made a feature film, something like a prequel: the end of the feature film is the short film. A crazy soccer game.

Let’s talk about the blend of genres and styles in L’arbitro.

It’s a formal experiment. I wanted to do something unconventional. It’s a crossbreeding of genres: you have comedy, Western, musical, tragedy, farce... Also, we also went for different tones: black-and-white cinematography, slow motion, stylized compositions. We tried to fly as high as we could, and at the same time deal with the very basics of popular comedy.

Black and white also allows you to move away from strict realism.

That was the idea, I wanted the film to be as abstract as it could. I didn’t want to make a film about corruption or violence in soccer. Even if I wanted to talk about these things, I didn’t want to get too involved. Instead, I wanted to be a bit above that. And I didn’t want to cast a realistic, critical eye on Sardinia itself, but to use the expressionistic strength I found there.

But there are quite a few things you took from real life.

Yes, more than you can imagine. For instance, there’s the absurd speech by a very corrupt referee whom people always laugh at, and yet it’s a translation from a real speech in English I found on the Internet. It’s pure comedy.

And there’s a corruption scandal dating back to 2006.

Yes, some referees did things to favour some teams because if they wanted to move ahead in their careers, that was the fast way to do it. In this case, the chiefs of the referees together with the chiefs of the teams decided which referee would be appointed in which game. Referees did it for ambition. And that’s what I wanted to talk about. People don’t know it, but referees are very ambitious. Their goal is to be referees at the World Cup. And the best thing for a referee is that nobody talks about him: it means he’s perfect. That’s the paradox: in order to be the best, nobody has to talk about them.

Where and when

Cinema Made in Italy at the Cinemark Palermo – May 14, at 12.30pm.

Theatre release in Buenos Aires scheduled for June 5.

@pablsuarez

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