A statement made by an Ahly fan about his dedication to his team sums up the sentiment of millions of Egyptians for whom football represents far more than a game, “Football is the only successful thing in my life. His declaration was preserved in acclaimed documentary, “A Place Called Home and has been ruefully echoed; when jobs, the economy or the political process disappoint, football never does.
For fans of English football champions Manchester United, a clan as passionately devoted as the Pharaohs, no one proved more spotlessly free of disappointment than Frenchman Eric Cantona. Cantona joined the team in 1992 after a lackluster career in France and quickly established his still enduring nickname in Old Trafford, “King Eric.
That Cantona led United to win the inaugural Premier League in 1993, its first championship since 1967, represents a necessary bit of context for the Palm d’Or nominee, “Looking For Eric, directed by British master of realism, Ken Loach (“Kes, “Riff-Raff, “My Name Is Joe ) and starring the legendary Cantona himself. Furthermore, that United was forced out of the Champions League just last week will only heighten fans’ nostalgia for the days when Cantona led the team.
Cantona’s stature in the eyes of his worshippers – his cryptic quotes only adding to the magic of his effortless playing – becomes apparent when Eric Bishop (played by the charming Steve Evets), the film’s main character, names him as his idol. That the other figures named include Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Frank Sinatra (and yes, Fidel Castro) should convey a sense of the reverence with which United worshippers hold Cantona.
Cantona develops into Bishop’s invisible mentor, advising him on familial troubles from reconciling with his still-beloved ex-wife to his hooligan stepson. This flight of fantasy may strike the reader as odd, but for the viewer this feels totally natural. Perhaps because, as the man himself says, “I am not a man, I am Cantona. More likely, it has to do with Pete Laverty’s writing, which lends a natural ease even to moments that would otherwise stink of kitschy sentimentality.
The film begins with an auspiciously perplexing car accident; we later learn Bishop had a panic attack after seeing his ex-wife, Lily (Stephanie Bishop). The viewer first sees Bishop’s face in a hospital bed, crying for Lily, whom he abandoned after the birth of their daughter. He then returns to a home overrun with teenagers; the rotating friends and girlfriends of Ryan (Gerard Kearns), his stepson from a second marriage, and Jess (Stefan Gumbs), his inexplicably black son. His daughter, we learn, is trying to finish university while caring for her infant.
Bishop’s life begins to seem a hodgepodge of hopeless cases, and then we meet his mates.
The crux of the film comes through in Bishop’s mates, and their easy dedication to him. All postmen, they initially try to cheer him with jokes before he starts the self-help session that ultimately causes Cantona to appear.
Although Cantona’s pithy phrases goad Bishop into acting like the father his sons need and rekindling his undying love for Lily, his real support comes from those friends, proving that friendship is not a matter of personal merit. When Bishop complains that Cantona cannot possibly understand the hardship of Bishop’s life, he responds, “Do you think my friends are better than yours?
A group of middle-aged guys sitting around Bishop’s home breathing deeply and picturing their heroes would have easily won “Best Scene in the Movie, if there weren’t so many fantastic moments that follow it.
Close competitors include Cantona instructing Bishop in how to say no in French, (“Non! ), results in a shouting spell as Bishop yells out his frustration with his life in his kitchen, (“Non! Non! Non! ), as well as a jogging session to improve Bishop’s self confidence, leading to awkward moments when Bishop’s friends and family find him engaged in these odd solitary activities.
Note to fans: this is not a football movie. The act of watching football represents a rare release for Bishop and his friends, somewhere that, “You can forget the s*** in your life for just a few hours, and “Let rip without getting arrested, a significant aspect in the game’s global popularity. Yet the mates have watched as their team became dominated by corporate interests; even the jerseys they wear on game days feature “AIG more prominently than the Man U’s insignia.
The increasing elitism of what was once a workingman’s team – a transition ironically quickened by Cantona’s success – represents just a whiff of Loach’s typical political moralizing. He deals lightly with Bishop’s daughter’s teen pregnancy and his sons’ illegal activities, treating them as the typical idiosyncrasies of any family. Which in fact, they are, although most directors would insist on the reification inherent to close examination.
Loach depicts the reality of contemporary suburban Britain. The strict gun laws and the power of Youtube both influence the final showdown scene. Not to give it away, but the scene leaves a satisfying sense of standing up to the bad guy (a local gang leader).
The cozy warmth of happy endings – recalcitrant teenagers grown suddenly docile, the pain of abandonment seemingly erased from the ex-wife’s memory – may read as implausible, yet again, onscreen evokes the satisfaction of justice served.
One of football’s greatest appeals is the simplicity of the game’s result, the clarity of a winner and loser. Loach somehow manages to wrap up the messy lives of his complex characters into an ending just as fulfilling as a well-played match. The apparently happy-go-lucky result belies the critical acclaim the film received at Cannes last year, where audiences with no interest in British football responded to the film’s undeniable warmth.
“Looking For Eric is showing as part of the European Film Club on Thursday, April 15, 7 pm, at the Italian Cultural Institute. Address: 3 Sheikh El Marsafi St., Zamalek, Cairo. Tel: (02) 2735 8791, (02) 2735 5423.