Diamantino Is Bizarre, Bold and Charming
by Jeremy Herbert
I understand why all the advertising for Diamantino puts the big, fluffy puppies front and center. If your hero is a world-class, dim-bulb soccer star who hallucinates elephant-sized Pomeranians when he’s in the zone, you don’t bury that lede. But before long, right around the time the ignorantly privileged Diamantino learns what a refugee is, the dogs start to look like the first layer of absurdist candy-coating on a bitterly relevant pill.
Like any decent drug trip, Diamantino defies satisfactory explanation short of just taking the thing and letting it melt you into the carpet. The first five minutes — a warning that this story is pure fiction, a father’s promise that our hero will be for soccer what Michelangelo was to art, and a pink, puppy wonderland that exists only in Diamantino’s mind — should be enough to decide if this is your kind of high. That’s about as viscerally psychedelic as it gets. Soon as it settles down into something baring a squinted resemblance to a sports drama, though, Diamantino gets really weird.
The plot, which both deserves coyness and defies conventional synopsis, rubs elbows with Cinderella, a late Brosnan-era Bond romp, and The Manchurian Candidate. Not that our intrepid hero, Diamantino, ever notices. When his father, the source of his athletic drive, dies, he decides to retire from the sport. His newfound passion? The refugee crisis he accidentally bumped into on his yacht. This is nothing short of criminal for everyone keeping tabs on him - evil twin sisters who want his bank account, radical right-wingers in the Portuguese government who want his body, and Lusitanian secret agents who want him for money laundering.
But we know he means it even before he adopts a refugee teen because Diamantino’s secret weapon is Diamantino himself or, more accurately, Carloto Cotta’s immediately endearing performance. Playing a rich moron that lives in a castle and sleeps on pillows with his own face on them is a sympathetic minefield. The audience should be looking for a reason to hate this guy and finding several. But from the opening voiceover, that first trip through his matter-of-fact fantasy-land that made him a phenomenon, Diamantino has your heart.
His cluelessness isn’t a side effect of lifelong privilege so much as an innate, atrophied naivete. It’s usually ascribed to great creative minds as a philosophical quality, but in the most literal sense, Diamantino has the mind of a child. A questionable medical exam reveals he only uses 10% of his brain, and not the 10% of neurological urban legend. When asked about sex, he happily admits he’s never had it, but thinks it’d be neat to experience some day. Despite the fact that he didn’t know refugees existed until he was 35, Diamantino’s immediate instinct is to help them.
The secret superpower in Diamantino the movie and Diamantino the man are one in the same - a warm, progressive kindness towards humanity. How could that be a bitter pill? You’ll hear “Make Portugal Great Again” enough times to leave a mark. There’s a wall involved. Diamantino stars in a swashbuckling commercial that he sees only as a chance to have fun with his adopted Mozambican son, not paying much attention to the dialogue about repelling the ferocious “Moors.” Even with his unlikely ability, to honestly care about people who have no effect on his own life, everyone misunderstands him. They take advantage of his status and take his fame for their own respective hatreds, some political and others personal.
That’s not to say Diamantino lets itself get too sober. One of the more charmingly bizarre subplots sees our virginal hero come into his own queer identity. The strangeness has nothing to do with the depiction, but with his accidental, chemically encouraged journey to finding himself. The circumstances of his first sexual experience would derail a more cowardly, more conventional movie. But here, it’s more sweet than deranged, and that’s a fair review for the whole, wide, weird, worldly patchwork quilt of Diamantino.
Because of and despite the giant puppies, it’s not a trip for everybody, though that’s more of an endorsement than a warning. Co-writers and co-directors Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt have made something aggressively original with their first feature. In a world of rich morons doing their damnedest to wipe out humanity, Diamantino is a refreshing pop fantasy that makes you wish for even one rich moron who just wants to help.