“We Wanted to Satire Wealth and Philanthropy — It’s a Critique of Charity as a Mode of Thinking that Comes Almost Exclusively from a Place of Privilege”: Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt on Diamantino
A soccer star weaving through giant puppies on a stadium pitch clouded by cosmic cotton candy is the wildest and most memorable image from Gabriel Abrantes’s and Daniel Schmidt’s screwball satire, Diamantino, which opens its theatrical run in LA today. Debuting at Cannes in 2018, where it won both the Critics’ Week Grand Prize and the Palm Dog Jury Prize for best canine performance, the roving comedy weaves together a wacky plot with hyper-topical subjects like rising neo-facism, genetic modification and the refugee crisis. Named for its protagonist soccer stud loosely inspired by Christian Ronaldo, Diamantino begins with a fall from grace in the form of a missed World Cup finals penalty kick. With his sports career over, the mega celebrity nicknamed Tino seeks redemption by adopting a refugee child. Meanwhile, his evil twin sisters plot against him taking advantage of his innocent and ignorant nature. Before their latest mad scientist scheme begins, Tino is already under the watchful eye of a Portuguese intelligence agency because of the sisters’ transferring funds to offshore bank accounts, an action that prompts a lesbian spy in the force to go under cover and crossdress as Tino’s adopted son. While the ex soccer player and spy form a genuine bond in spite of the ridiculous circumstances, Tino becomes tangled up in his sisters’ latest scheme involving a government scientist studying and cloning the soccer prodigy as part of an ethno-nationalist propaganda campaign, a campy body transformation resulting as a side effect of the risky genetic experiment. Hilarity ensues.
While it’s perhaps the most accessible yet of their films, Diamantino fits into a style of absurdist politically-engaged filmmaking that Abrantes and Schmidt have been developing along with two other frequent collaborators Alexander Carver and Benjamin Crotty. The four had a retrospective back in 2016 at the Lincoln Center, which featured several shorts Abrantes and Schmidt made together. Diamantino is their first feature.
Filmmaker: I know you’ve collaborated before — and that you share other collaborators as well — but how did it happen that you started developing this project together?
Daniel Schmidt: At some point, Gabe and I had done two films, and it seemed almost sort of natural that we were going to make a third one. We applied for some financing and to our grand surprise, we received it. But then there was a bunch of delays with receiving the financing and us trying to figure out what we actually wanted to make.
Gabriel Abrantes: This is 2011 when we were first writing it.
Schmidt: So for seven years we were making other things.
Abrantes: If we had shot it in 2011 or 2012, I think it would have been a lot more similar to Palácios de Pena or A History of Mutual Respect — a slightly Pasolini homage with dubbed dialogue and a lot of artifice. That’s how we were originally thinking of the film. But we changed over the years. This film is much more focused on character than concept.
Filmmaker: It definitely feels much more accessible.
Abrantes: That’s what we wanted.
Filmmaker: So you’re working on this film for so long, but then it has a lot of topical things in it. How does that process work? What ideas were consistent, and what came in with what was happening with the political moment?
Abrantes: We wanted to satire wealth and philanthropy — [it’s] a critique of charity as a mode of thinking that comes almost exclusively from a place of privilege. And so we came up with this idea of a very wealthy person adopting someone. That’s been there since 2010.
Schmidt: Earlier on it was rooted in a harsher critique of a sort of Kardashian, reality-TV star type and an indictment, to some degree, of a kind of ignorance. In a way it shifted more towards an examination of naivete, and what that perspective offers. And of course, they’re related, so the film has both.
Filmmaker: It’s pretty gentle to the dumb privileged character. He’s the hero. It doesn’t feel like an indictment in the end.
Schmidt: No, definitely not at all.
Abrantes: For sure, but his adoption, I think, is seen as a big joke. He thinks he’s doing good, but we are all laughing at his naivete of thinking that he’s doing good. With Tino, we’re making fun of this stereotype of the rich footballer, and also trying to fall in love with it in some ways, which is a perverse game. We like finding the good things in the things that we hate and the bad things in the things that we love.
I think the film definitely proposes that Tino is somewhat innocent because of his ignorance, but that’s not really a justification that I’m comfortable with — that ignorance is okay or something?
Filmmaker: How did you cast the film’s leads?
Abrantes: We wrote the film for Carloto. I’ve worked with him before. I always thought he was totally brilliant and got along with him very well. He’s got a very strong personality but we have a sort of chemistry. Daniel also knew him and really liked him. And then when we were thinking of what Portuguese pop icon Carloto could do, it was very obvious he would be this soccer stud.
Filmmaker: Like Christian Ronaldo?
Schmidt: Yeah. And then to find Aisha, we did an open casting with a local casting agent in Lisbon. It was difficult to cast Aisha’s character. We were looking for someone who could convincingly play a woman but who could also somewhat convincingly play a boy. Of course the film is a fairytale and a satire, so he/she only really needs to seem like a boy from the eyes of Diamontino.
Filmmaker: I read one review that was very much like, “This movie is all about love conquers all.” Do you feel like that’s at all accurate?
Schmidt: On a good day I want to be a romantic and believe, but I think we were really trying to play with the tropes of a fairy tale. And sort of see how that love-conquers-all moral could fit in a sort of fairy tale of today.
Abrantes: We were also really inspired by these 1930s and ’40s romantic comedies like Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, Adam’s Rib — comedies where the couple does end up getting back together in the end but there’s this sort of bittersweet change or new consciousness that occurs as well.
Filmmaker: How did you approach this film as a comedy?
Abrantes: I think we always had such a distant relationship to affect in our previous films where we were almost keeping the characters at arm’s length. And in this one we wanted to engage emotion in a first-degree level. I think being like slightly emotionally repressed, comedy is probably our easiest mode to access direct emotion. More than sentimentality.
Comedy and horror are very interesting, because you can literally tell if the film is functioning by the noise, the decibels in the theater — whether people are laughing or screaming.
Filmmaker: Quantifiable engagement.
Abantes: Yeah! We love comedies, and especially political comedies, and how satire works from Ancient Greece to the king’s fool being the only person who can question the otherwise unquestionable king, through jokes today with the late night talk show hosts roasting of the president. Our interest is using comedy as something that let us play with, satirize, and parody a bunch of stuff that can be very touchy in a drama.
Schmidt: I actually feel that almost all of our previous films are first and foremost as comedies but the humor was very insular, like sometimes maybe even only accessible to the two filmmakers. But still it was really like one of the driving forces of developing the film. This shift came to from working with really talented actors and allowing them to be more human in their expression. Before we had been requesting these very muted, almost robot-like performances.
Abrantes: We weren’t working with professional actors. A lot of times in our previous films we would be reading the actors the lines, and they’d just repeat them back to us. They literally wouldn’t have even read the script before they came on set.
Filmmaker: So who have you made this film for? It’s more accessible. And then it’s also very Portuguese — which I imagine has to do with your funding sources to some extent. And then you’re making a story that resonates with the political moment internationally, where every country’s dealing with this kind of stuff.
Abrantes: We tried really hard to keep a really weird, strange and new language. We really enjoyed playing with the language of our previous films but then trying as hard as possible to not to be insular. A lot of the conversations we had were definitely like, “How can we make a film that’s experimental and new and breaking a bunch of aesthetic or political boundaries, but at the same time be very accessible and open.’
Thinking about Portugal it’s funny, because it’s definitely a film that could work in Portugal, but I was very afraid because Cristiano Ronaldo is actually a very protected figure in Portugal. And so if you make fun of him people hate you. Like why would you make fun of this poor kid who worked hard as hell, and was very talented, and then became a national icon, a hero.
I was afraid that there was going to be backlash but we screened like a month ago in Lisbon — it opened the Queer Film Festival there. I was very nervous people were going to hate it and walk out or whatever, but it was like pandemonium in there. The decibels were much higher than in Cannes, or even here! I was really happy to see that these jokes, which a lot of them are very Portuguese in some way, or have extra resonance for Portuguese, were actually functioning in a positive way. Who knows though what happens when it now goes to a broader theater because the Queer Film Festival audience is very specific.
Filmmaker: And because you mentioned that it opened the Queer Film Festival there, I’m curious what you think of the idea of the queered body in the film?
Abrantes: We were definitely looking at ideas how a jock, heteronormative public icon could have his body change and then be very open to this change. That’s why at the end of the movie is this happy romantic relationship with Aisha’s character. There’s a lot of transgressions going on, like him having thought she was a boy. That although he is a virgin in the film, he always thought he was hetero, but then he starts liking this boy–
Filmmaker: And a boy that’s supposed to be his adopted child.
Abrantes: We’re interested obviously in pushing all these boundaries. We were really interested in comedies where there’s a character that pretends to be another character, like Tootsie, or all of Shakespeare’s comedies. And that joined with notions of masquerade as an empowering queer idea, coming from, like, Judith Butler. We wanted to basically make a structure where no matter how you look at it there’s a question.