Review: Diego Maradona

Asif Kapadia, who has already given us rather depressing documentaries about racer Ayrton Senna and singer Amy Winehouse (Oscar winner), titles his latest celebrity profile Diego Maradona, which sounds unnecessary. Considered by many to be the greatest soccer player of all time, the late Argentine athlete surely doesn’t need to be identified by his given name. When anyone says, “Maradona,” everyone else knows exactly who they are talking about. But taking off from an observation made by Maradona’s trainer, the title is meant to indicate the two sides of the man: the superstar player, who was essentially invented by the international media with willing assistance from the man himself, and the guy who loved the game more than anything and was basically an insecure kid who never outgrew his impoverished background. This is the classic dichotomy inherent in every Hollywood celebrity biopic, and unlike with Senna or Winehouse, this time Kapadia fell for the kind of sentimental undertow that pulls such movies under the waves. 

Reportedly, he had some 500 hours of footage with which to work, much of it never seen before. Ever since he emerged fully formed as a teenager from Villa Fiorito, a small shanty town outside of Buenos Aires, Maradon’s life has been recorded nonstop by, first, the sports press, and then the tabloids. What’s particularly startling about the early footage is just how well it captures Maradona’s peculiar talents. For a short, stocky kid, he moves like quicksilver and his dribbling often has the quality of being manipulated, as if the film itself had been sped up and wiped of awkward moves. Even a soccer novice like me was impressed by the sheer will power on display to get the ball to where he wants to put it. But Kapadia doesn’t dwell on this period, probably because it’s already been mythologized. Once he gets his point across that Maradona deserved his accolades he fast forwards to the meat of his career: his residency with Naples in the late 1980s, where he became a god after leading the team to the national championship in 1987. Though much could be said about his time with Barcelona prior to Naples, Kapadia doesn’t seem interested, probably because there he was merely mortal. Kapadia elaborates on the background of the deal that brought Maradona to Italy, and how Napoli, which one interviewee characterizes as the “armpit of Italy,” was the eternal goat of the Italian league. He plays up the mystery of why Maradona—who presumably could have played for anyone—chose to go there. That Kapadia never resolves this mystery seems deliberate, because it points up Maradona’s self-destructive streak, which supposedly started at the end of his Barcelona tenure.

Maradona went from saint to Satan when he played for his home country, Argentina, at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, where he led his team to victory against his hosts. As the movie so clearly shows, he then became not only fair game for the country’s rabid tabloid press, but dead meat in the end. His already excessive cocaine habit was revealed, not to mention his close connections with the Comorra, which seems to have been instrumental in bringing him to Naples, as well as his extra-marital shenanigans. Though Kapadia’s obsession with this aspect of Maradona’s existence is compelling, in the end it feels like a missed opportunity. At more than two hours long, Diego Maradona is so closely focused on its subject that it neglects the obvious sociological aspects attendant to the tale, especially with regard to national identity as it applies to international sport. The only time it addresses this matter forthrightly is in the brief bit about the famous “hand of God” play against England, which is characterized, appropriately, as a huge middle finger wielded for the sake of comic chauvinism. The tragedy of Maradona, who became overweight and sad after leaving Naples, seems too trite by itself, which means it isn’t as unusual a story as Kapadia thinks it is. Neither Amy Winehouse nor Ayrton Senna had as much influence on the world at large, but those documentaries told me more about life than Diego Maradona did. 

In Italian, Spanish and English. Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551). 

Diego Maradona home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2019 Scudetto Pictures Limited

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