A yellow Lamborghini swerves around a sharp corner as the sun begins to dip. A blue sleeved arm reaches out of its window; the cliff-face the car drives along is thick with greenery. The white turrets of a gated castle peek out from behind the trees, and then the car wheels spin, kicking up red dust as it screeches to a halt. As a handsome young man and his new "son" exit the vehicle, Welsh popstar Donna Lewis’s 1996 hit "I Love You Always Forever" plays.
This needle drop moment in Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt’s Diamantino is an unexpected one. I had forgotten the song existed, but recognized the breathy, sugary, Cyndi Lauper-style vocal immediately. Lewis was mostly a one hit wonder, but "At the Beginning," her duet with adult contemporary singer Richard Marx, recorded for the soundtrack of Fox’s 1997 animated drama Anastasia, remains a childhood earworm for me; those who can bring themselves to listen to both tracks will realize that melodically, the choruses are almost identical. Abrantes and Schmidt’s design to contrast romantic 16mm photography with this low-culture music cue, is, in a word, funny.
Indeed, "I Love You Always Forever" is almost comically sincere, its declarative, repetitive singsong chorus reiterating:
I love you, always forever
Near and far, closer together
Everywhere I will be with you
Everything I will do for you
Yet despite its transparent simplicity, or perhaps because of it, the song is kind of sweet. It’s giddy, pure, insistent, definitively stupid but undeniable in its appeal. Not unlike Diamantino (Carloto Cotta), the Portuguese soccer star at the center of Abrantes and Schmidt’s playful satire. When Diamantino misses a penalty during the World Cup, the humiliation alone forces him to retire from football completely. His crumpled, crying face is instantly turned into a meme and so he retreats to his castle, avoiding interviews and drinking Bongo juice in his underwear.
Diamantino is dopy and big-hearted, a well-meaning manchild, if menchildren were innocent. He eats like a child, subsisting on Nutella, and carries his kitten Mittens around like a stuffed toy. In order to focus on the soccer pitch, he imagines himself surrounded by CGI clouds of bubblegum-pink mist that literally sparkle. In this altered state, all he can remember is the puppies; giant, fluffy things that bound across the empty field. His eyes water with love whenever his late father is mentioned. The film begins by mocking Diamantino’s boundless capacity for empathy, but ends by wrapping itself in it.
It would be unfair to reveal too many of the film’s delightful tonal lurches, but briefly, the plot: Diamantino’s jealous twin sisters (Anabela and Margarida Moreira) sell him out to a mad scientist named Dr. Lamborghini (Carla Maciel), who plans to inject him with hormones before cloning him for propaganda purposes; if all goes to plan, a right wing political party will exploit both his popularity and his guilelessness. (Brexit happened shortly before Abrantes and Schdmit began writing the film.) Diamantino’s brain operates at one-tenths the functionality of a normal adult’s; by his own admission via voiceover, which recounts the film’s events in past tense as though it were folklore legend, he “wasn’t very well informed.” But Diamantino is manipulated by his own family. Like tragic celebrity figures such as Whitney Houston, Britney Spears, Amy Winehouse, or any number of the Kardashians, the star’s talent is treated as a cash machine.
Meanwhile, a lesbian undercover agent, Aisha (Cleo Tavares), is sent to investigate Diamantino’s apparent tax-dodging, but upon a sweep of his laptop, all she finds are cute photos of baby animals. Posing as a male refugee named Rahim after Diamantino declares on live television that he wants to adopt one, Aisha ends up in his house. Their connection is instant.
In an interview with Film Comment magazine, Abrantes recalls reading Stanley Cavell’s Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage and being introduced, by co-director Schmidt, to American romantic comedies from the ‘30s and ‘40s, including Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday and Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not to Be, while they were writing the film. “[Schmidt] engendered the project, saying let’s make a romantic comedy about a couple not meant to be together but who find love in the end,” he remembers.
A chaste kinship begins between Diamantino and his “son,” Rahim; the pair have tickle fights, the former tenderly tucking his “fugee” into bed, underneath a duvet emblazoned with his own smiling face. The pair escape Diamantino’s wicked sisters, themselves fairytale villains, in a getaway car. There’s a sunset, a boat. A romantic comedy indeed; and at the very least, a Taylor Swift song.
Dr. Lamborghini’s biomedical experiments have caused Diamantino to grow breasts, which he examines in the bowels of the boat. Aisha sees, and tentatively, unbinds her own. Body horror is reclaimed as queer eroticism, and Diamantino experiences love: “romantic, passionate love.” Prince Charming’s kiss is reconfigured as a woman’s healing touch; Diamantino swoons over his “true love’s gentle caress.”
Feels like I'm standing in a timeless dream
Of light mists with pale amber rose
Feels like I'm lost in a deep cloud of heavenly scent
Touching, discovering you
Donna Lewis floods my mind, filling my ears. Suddenly, I’m no longer laughing.
Simran Hans is a London-based film critic for the Observer and a culture writer whose work has appeared in, among others, Buzzfeed, Dazed, the FADER, and Sight & Sound.