Jorge, a cinema worker in Uruguay, learns that his beloved arthouse picture palace, Cinemateca, is about to close.
The short film A Useful Life follows Jorge’s routine of programming, projecting and fixing seats. He hosts a lifeless radio show about the cinema with fellow aficionados. This has been his life “every day for 25 years”.
This cinema has been a cultural institution in the city of Montevideo for over a century. But falling membership, faulty equipment and unpaid rent threaten it. Finally its main backers pull the plug.
Jorge now has to adapt to life outside the cinema. We are offered a fantasy where he protects himself from the real world by daydreaming about old movies.
He looks upbeat, but it’s the feeling everyone gets when they leave a demanding job—that sense of freedom, of the possibilities of unfilled days. But the story leaves us there, before he runs out of money or gets another job.
The film is extraordinarily dense. It clocks in at just over an hour and it would have been difficult to maintain such intensity in a longer feature. There seems a struggle to convey meaning with every camera angle, every twitch.
Many of the scenes are beautifully acted and shot.
Filmed in colour but printed in luscious black and white, the piece glows, evoking the romance of cinema-going before the rise of the multiplex.
But it’s not clear that the director knew what he wanted to achieve.
Was it a knowing, gentle comedy for film buffs? A comment on the value of cinema? Or a sketch on art as truth?
All these elements are there but none are given enough space to grow.
The first half is an engaging and studied homage to the loving work of maintaining a culturally valuable but unprofitable institution.
Real life cinema workers from Uruguay are here used to provide wonderfully acted scenes.
But the submissive way Jorge later accepts Cinemateca’s fate and bravely searches for a new individual direction feels defeatist.
Politically naive perhaps, but A Useful Life is an engaging sliver of art cinema all the same.
A Useful Life is directed by Federico Veiroj and in cinemas now