The Criterion Channel’s ‘Beautiful Game’ Collection: Which Films to Watch

The Criterion Channel recently added nine international films centered around the beautiful game to its vaunted collection of prestigious titles. We take a look at some of our favorites, while looking forward to ones we’ve yet to watch. 

With the men’s World Cup this past winter and the women’s only a few months away, the Criterion Channel made a soccer-themed collection of international films that is a wild ride. Criterion and sports is not a combo one would expect, but as a filmmaker I was pleasantly surprised to come across “The Beautiful Game,” a collection of nine documentary and narrative films.

For the uninitiated, the Criterion Channel is dedicated to making some of the most acclaimed and important movies available to watch at home. What started as restoring classic films on mediums like laserdiscs and DVDs has evolved into Blu-Ray and digital, with its own standalone streaming service being introduced in 2018.

With “The Beautiful Game” series, Criterion celebrates a handful of international feature length and short films. Naturally, these selections are eclectic and thought provoking, and I hadn’t heard of any of them prior to seeing them on the list.

Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the collection is the changing role that soccer plays. In Mirage it’s ancillary and could be replaced by any sport that has a ball, while in Infinite Football it is the setup and framework, but as the film develops it becomes a character study. On the other hand, Freedom Fields sees soccer take center stage in a poignant and visually captivating documentary. It’s not always about what goes on in between the lines, and these films explore that while still giving us the goods on the pitch. Below are three brief reviews for the films I’ve already mentioned, and a bit more about the ones I plan on watching next.

Mirage (2014, Hungary/Slovakia)

Dir. Szabolcs Hajdu

Probably the least “soccer” of the films. A western that takes place in a slightly dystopian future, we follow an Ivorian soccer player in rural Hungary on the run from the police. I too was curious (more like skeptical) of this setup, but it does a great job of mixing sports into the western genre. If we want to stereotype, this is probably the most “Criterion” of the collection — it’s a minimalist art house film that scratches the artsy itch. But the shoot outs, crooked cops, and stare downs give you familiar moments that help you buy into this neo-western.

Infinite Football (2018, Romania)

Dir. Corneliu Porumboiu

Like Mirage, Infinite Football’s out-of-the-box synopsis raises the eyebrow, but the film ends up being a thought provoking examination of what exactly soccer is.

After suffering a broken leg playing soccer, Laurentiu Ginghina embarks on a wandering journey to change the rules of the game, pretty drastically too. A different field shape, restrictions on player movement — it’s pretty crazy what he is proposing.

As the film goes on, director Corneliu Porumboiu smartly focuses on a concept Ginghina keeps bringing up: many rules are introduced to “help” the flow and movement of the ball despite the sport being player-focused in the media. This begins the character study and the film finds its feet. Moments of comedy throughout kept me laughing and never quite knowing where the unique documentary was going next.

Freedom Fields (2018, Libya/United Kingdom)

Dir. Naziha Arebi

With Freedom Fields, we get a very different journey than the previous two films. After the 2011 revolution in Libya, a movement began to create a women’s national team, and it had the support of the federation. Filmed over four years, we follow three players as they work to stay in shape and sharp on the field while also fighting to form a team in a country still grappling with the after effects of the assassination of Muammar Gaddafi. These women also come up against issues we see in federations and FIFA itself — money for a team or program going somewhere else, normally a pocket. Despite this, there is a positive end to it for the players. They get their game and have a plan for the future.

What’s Up Next?

Being a documentarian, I am biased and Forza Bastia, which documents the lead up to the 1978 UEFA Cup Final between SEC Bastia and PSV Eindhoven on the French island sounds really perfect. It’s exactly what I want to make.

The next narrative film on my to-do list is probably The Cup, a film from Bhutan about young monks trying to get a satellite dish to watch the World Cup, something we can all relate to. With Valentine’s Day coming up, the rom-com Gregory’s Girl about a love struck high school player is sure to be an easy and fun date night. The last one I’m thinking of is Wim Wenders’ first ever feature film, The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. You follow a goal keeper for a crazy night after he gets sent off in a match.

Have you seen any of the other films on the list? Let me know in the comments. 

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