Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Longest Penalty in the World

The Longest Penalty in the World (Penalti más largo del mundo, El) is a comic love story set in the backdrop of lower league football in Spain.

In the final league game of a championship season a goalkeeper is injured, the reserve goalkeeper (the village loser) is called to save a penalty which the referee postpones by a week because of crowd trouble. The film tells us the story of this one week and how Fernando makes the most of his celebrity status with a number of sub plots woven in.

From information that I could glean, it appears that this movie was made to capitalize on the success of another football film called ‘Dias de Futbol’ where Fernando was one of the minor yet popular characters. So the producers basically made some changes to the character (namely Fernando becomes a goalkeeper), found a director with reputation but no feature films to his credit – Roberto Santiago and the outcome was ‘TLPITW’ (yes, I do read Bollywood film reviews once in a while). Incidentally, Santiago has also written the script based on a short story by Osvaldo Soriano.

Most of the film and its characters are about relationships and expectations that come with them, but the narrative relies on humor to construct the message. The characters all have shades of grey but are almost all well-intentioned, likeable and simple people. At times the film begins to feel like a lengthy skit with scenes moving from location to location after the involved characters have spoken. The script is funny, yet the weakest part of the story. Fernando and company are able to make you smile more than the writing warrants by making all the exchanges seem almost normal, even when they talk to each other while standing in lines of ten and facing the camera.

But leaving the criticism for the critics, the film does have enough of football involved throughout to connect with the everyday fan. It doesn’t take long for Fernando to realize that for seven days he is a king and he exploits the situation to the fullest much like one-season wonders acting like prima donnas as soon as they realize they are getting noticed by ‘bigger’ clubs. However, Fernando who intends to retire from football after the penalty kick, is not focussed on a big final payday – his interest is the lovely Cecilia who also happens to be the coach’s daughter and the first choice goalkeeper’s girl friend.

That the coach agrees to help him and Cecilia overcomes her disgust of Fernando as well as the fear of her boyfriend to go on a couple of dates with the loser illustrates what the championship means to the fans of the little club. And it’s not just them, but the local paper vendor and wannabe journalist, the owner of the club (who also owns the departmental store where most of the players work), Fernando’s sister and virtually everyone else in the village – all will do anything to keep Fernando happy so he is in the best possible mood when the time to stop the kick comes.

The theme of obsession with football is also evident when the unemployed player, spends borrowed money on a pair of cleats while his wife struggles to buy food and the child continues to need a dental check up.

Match fixing, intimidation of referees, home support and mind games between opponents all form quick and amusing sub plots as we reach the climax with our ‘Hero’ the only one not worried about the championship, but the ‘date’ that stopping the penalty guarantees him. The film ends on a ‘feel good’ note with smiles and happiness and plans for the future and the true joy of winning a championship at any level.

Football fans will enjoy this movie without doubt and those who grew up in European countries following mega clubs long ago will remember the times when the players and the fans drank together at the local pub. Fans of small teams from the lower divisions will see a glimpse of their own aspirations and connections with their local teams and will relive the joys of promotions and victories they have been through.

But if none of that interests you, there are still more reasons to see this one – Maria Botto and Marta Larralde, the two leading female characters and both difficult to take your eyes off. And the end credits of the movie where all the characters stand in their club colors and sing the anthem of their beloved club – Estrella Polar.

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