Interviewing Gabriel Abrantes – The doubts of Diamantino
Gabriel Abrantes is not only a filmmaker but also a plastic artist. Like the character in his last movie, Diamantino, he is not limited by any labels. Interviewing him is an exercise that allows us to perceive his ambition for everything that is in the limbo. He is interested in portraying a “greyer” world, or in other words, one more open to ambiguity – art is also “a tool for dismantling prejudice”. And that’s what we encounter in his first feature film. Diamantino flips us around, it shuffles concepts and unleashes different questions.
The first feature film by Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt (a Cannes winner with the 57th Critics’ Week Grand Prix, and is now making its debut in Portugal) is free and liberating. It is a breath of fresh air, combining the lightness of comedy with the straightforwardness of the subject matter. The movie plunges into social and political issues of undeniable relevance. We are confronted with a dystopian Portugal, with Diamantino delved into gender and colonial issues, as well as the refugee crisis. Just like the present-day time: an amalgam of references that overlap each other, mixing references of the real or the imaginary realm, in a mishmash of popular and erudite culture.
Nevertheless, in the end, Diamantino is also the discovery of love. A love has “reasons of which reason knows nothing”. And, albeit nothing new, let alone a staggering conclusion, this simplicity is where the beauty (or tragedy) of the main character lies. Perhaps this outcome – the (a)typical love feast of a fairy tale – is a metaphor pointing to something greater. Something that involves everything else and enwraps us in ambiguity.
Carolina Trigueiros – Diamantino establishes different parallels with the world of art right from the beginning. Are there no painters like Michelangelo anymore? There seems to be a metaphor for the state of the art and a comparison with the sports world. How do you look at that?
Gabriel Abrantes – I used to paint when I was a kid. I started at 7 and, when I was 13 years old, I painted constantly. In 2016, when I arrived in Lisbon, I organized two [painting] exhibitions. This is found in some of my videos, such as Olympia, which alludes to Manet’s painting, or Brancusi’s [A Brief History of Princess X]. I’ve always had a strong relationship with the plastic arts in my movies. And I have always questioned the relevance of the plastic arts, of painting, of sculpture, before a wider audience. If there is any relevance … If what you show and accomplish in museums and galleries actually reaches a large audience, achieving a greater impact. The issue in Diamantino is different. In the Renaissance, people were quite amazed by the technical abilities of Michelangelo or Bernini, who seemed almost supernatural. They were capable of doing things that most humans were not – the perfect work. They had a very particular ability to be focused and a very specific proficiency. Today things are different. Nowadays, the technical side of the arts is less blatant, that awe has vanished. Most artists are social animals. That is shifted to the sports realm a little bit. When you see an athlete doing something apparently impossible to any mortal being, that possibility of an aesthetic, brilliant act is created.
CT – On the relationship between aesthetic genius and sports, I read that Diamantino was inspired by David Foster Wallace’s texts. Wallace writes that the secret of genius is emptiness. And there is that sentence during the collage process where we find that Diamantino “is emptiness”…
GA – Wallace is talking about a tennis player, Tracy Austin, who was the same age as him and [also] played tennis. They were both 15 years old, but she was much better. At 14, she appeared on the cover of Tennis World and at 16 she won the US Championship. But [she] had an accident and stopped playing. So, she wrote a memoir, an autobiography. Wallace’s criticism is that the whole book is made of clichés and contradictions. He felt desperate with the content and reached that concept of emptiness. He says that, in order to react to tennis balls flying from the opposite side of the court – with thousands of people watching – in a fraction of a second, something is needed… There is also an article about Cristiano Ronaldo in which he says he feels no pressure at all. Or the documentary on the alpinist Alex Honnold, who climbs without a string, and the MRIs revealed eerie images. All these names, and Diamantino in this case, have, in their own way, a “space” that is different from most people.
CT – But this representation has plenty of clichés as well. The movie has these soap opera, fairy tale elements. There are banal ideas or observations that, through Diamantino’s voice, reach a different dimension. As if his gullibility – or, on the other hand, genius – allowed us to be more open and ready to pardon all his faults, even distractions.
GA – This “childish” character has freed us to be almost mellow or “cliché”, while stepping over that threshold. If we happened to be sentimental in another movie, that could have been ironic, but Diamantino’s voice makes everything sincere. Daniel and I needed this character to say these sentences. We were able to project a sincerity on Diamantino. Diamantino allows us to experience things for which none of us would have availability. The idea emerged from the need to make a parody, a comedy about the idea of a sportsman who is a bit naive, but, ironically, that becomes his superpower. This naivety and subsequent lack of prejudice make Diamantino much more open to different interpretations and experiences of the world, to which many people close their doors. It’s quite easy to ridicule the footballer’s character and that was not what we wanted. The film is always placing borders around him, the nationalist border, the gender border, sexuality, whatever. And he keeps shattering them. That is liberating. And that’s what’s beautiful. We all have a Diamantino inside of us.
CT – He keeps encountering different issues, like those borders. Problems related to ecology, refugees, adoption. There is even an amalgam of references. How do you deal with this information excessiveness?
GA – The film is a reaction to the barrage of information that we endure every day. The social media feeds, the news. There is an excess of crisis, of anxiety, of fear nurtured by the media. The so-called “news cycle”. Every 24 hours, a crisis vanishes and another one emerges to make people interested. And we wanted to replicate a bit of the anxiety we feel about that. Diamantino is an excess of issues and, at the same time, a quite simple morality. A character who goes through all of that, who is somehow alienated from the news cycle but, in the end, love is what matters to him. A love that most spectators did not expect a footballer, the greatest star of all, an icon, to accept and enjoy. A new kind of love that is a solid and emotional ending.
CT – A love to break stereotypes?
GA – That’s Diamantino. In the first minutes, we may think that he is a heteronormative character, a macho man, a womanizer. But we quickly realize that he is almost the opposite. And that also reflects the prejudice that we have of the footballers.
CT – Using humour to talk about serious stuff.
GA – The film is always throwing things into our face, but it’s a comedy. It is a happy movie but, at the same time, it is liberating somehow. And that has to do with politics. Daniel and I see this as a political message, at least. A romantic comedy that does not abide by the standards of traditional relationships. And what motivates me is to find and unveil false prejudice. In Diamantino, the loving end breaks a stereotype. I have always seen art as a tool to dismantle prejudice.
CT – Is that the trademark of all your movies?
GA – The message that goes through all my movies is a message of ambiguity. The ambition to make people see the film in a greyer way. Diamantino is a bit of that. Those can be aesthetic borders. My films are a combination of experimental, auteur and pop cinema, but they also delve into frontiers, in an attempt to break them.
CT – To wrap things up, what are you preparing right now?
GA – I’m currently making a movie, a short-length one. It’s an animation and the most ambitious short-length I’ve done so far. I shot it at Louvre in Paris, and it’s about a sculpture that wakes up at night when the museum is closed. She is tired of being a sculpture, a decorative object, then runs away from the museum and joins a manifestation that is taking place. But things don’t go all that well… I’m also writing a horror movie. It’s still in the very first stages, but it will be a feature film. And here [in Lisbon], I have an individual exhibition scheduled to take place in November, at gallery Francisco Fino.