I’m a big soccer fan and have always been. I played from the time I was four until I graduated high school and even considered playing in college. Despite its popularity in the world, I’ve seen very few decent films about the sport. Of course there’s Victory and Bend It Like Beckham was quite charming. The German film Das Wunder von Bern is lights out amazing and there are several documentaries including Once in a Lifetime that hit the right notes. However, none really capture the game in the same way as Paolo Zucca‘s The Referee (L’arbitro). While other soccer films, including some of those mentioned above, have captured the spirit of the game on a number of different levels, I’ve not seen one that has captured it on a more personal, local level than The Referee. Chock full of quirkiness, it is unlike any film I’ve seen in the last 10 or so years outside of the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
Zucca employs a sort of two-pronged narrative to tell the stories of a local soccer team in Pabarile that is in need of an injection of energy to vie for the championship of their league and a referee named Cruiciani (Stefano Accorsi) who is trying anything he can to be considered to referee the final of what we are to assume of the Serie A championships (the Italian soccer league). What transpires is the slow, but steady intersection of their two narratives. After the prodigal son, Matzutzi (Jacopo Cullin), returns to the village from exile in Argentina, he brings with him a football prowess completely absent from the team. His presence instantly energizes the squad and he immediately sets his sights on the coaches daughter Miranda (Geppi Cucciari), the girl he had fallen for when he was a boy.
Cruciari, on the other hand, tries to underhandedly manufacture a more ratings-friendly matchup for the final after getting bad advice which ends up costing him his chance at refereeing the final and likely his career. Try as he may, he is unable to correct the situation by groveling to the president of the federation. He is banished to the league where Pabarile plays and looks to make his mark there.
Zucca and his co-writer Barbara Alberti do such a great job of fleshing out the passion the village has for its football team, with everyone coming out for the games, engaging in brawls with fans from the other team and feeling the wins and losses equally as high or low as the team members themselves. As anyone who knows football/soccer, it is truly a religion around the world with cities and countries literally living or dying with their team’s success or failure. The rivalry takes on all sorts of twists and turns, some funny, others quite serious, but it’s done with a deft touch of levity that really adds an interesting layer to the film.
This film has a lot going for it. It’s whimsical in many parts, serious in others and utterly engaging. The structure keeps you guessing as to how the two narratives overlap and it’s part of the fun trying to figure out at what point they will connect. Shot in beautiful black and white, Zucca forgoes typical shots of Italy – no shots of Venice or cathedrals. What we get is the more pastoral view of what Italy has to offer and Patrizio Patrizi‘s photography enhances the landscape capturing its beauty and putting it on par with what we normally see of Italy in films.
At this point, I am 4 for 4 with the films I’ve reviewed from Heartland. Fortunate for me and hopefully for you as well.