Diego Maradona, Asif Kapadia's Definitive Portrait

by Luca Celada May 21, 2019
A scene from "Diego Maradona", 2019

alfredo capozzi

In an edition light on documentaries, Asif Kapadia’s Diego Maradona shined all the more brightly.  Kapadia is the master of “reconstructive” docs, specializing in assembling electrifying portraits from vast stores of archival footage. He demonstrated that skill with Senna, which took Sundance by storm eight years ago, and again right here on the Croisette when he premiered Amy in 2015. The first film painted a gripping picture of Brazilian champion pilot and Formula One’s enfant prodige, Ayrton Senna, detailing his rise and his bitter, career-long rivalry with Frenchman Alain Prost until his death in a race track accident. Amy was an equally emotional portrait of British soul singer Amy Winehouse, her natural talent, meteoric rise and wrenching fall (self-destruction aided and amply abetted by rungs of self-interested hangers-on including, heartbreakingly, members of her own family.) In both cases Kapadia was able to tease the most relevant narrative from massive amounts of filmed footage, assembling them in edits that rivaled fiction films for emotional impact.

That same task has fallen to him with a subject larger in many ways than his previous ones. With Diego Armando Maradona the director goes back to the world of sports to take on a figure not only revered as one of the best soccer players in the game’s history but also one truly larger than life. For sheer global brand recognition the Argentine footballer rivals figures such as Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan -  or Che Guevara. That also sets the bar very high for Kapadia: there is little we have not seen about the legendary number 10 – in documentaries, sports specials, World Cup Games or previous movies (like Emir Kusturica’s eponymous Maradona which premiered right here in Cannes in 2008). But Kapadia could count on hundreds of hours of previously unseen footage including from Maradona’s own archive and his unique sensibility for finding the story behind the raw material. And he makes the inspired decision of focusing on the central part of Maradona’s career, his time at Napoli FC. That effectively makes the Southern Italian city a co-star in the film and she is as temperamental, emotional and over-the-top demonstrative as any movie diva.

The film opens with the amazing sequence of a caravan of cars tearing at breakneck speed through the city before pulling into the San Paolo stadium for the press conference that will introduce fans and media the team’s latest acquisition in 1984. Napoli had just acquired the star player but this was no run of the mill transfer. After wowing scouts worldwide as a revelation on Boca Junior in Argentina, Maradona had landed at FC Barcelona, one of the Old Continent’s most storied clubs, seemingly destined for Spanish glory. But the rambunctious 22-year-old soon ran afoul of team management due to his enthusiastic affinity for Barcelona nightlife. And that is how Fernando Ferlaino, president of a middling team more accustomed to fighting to avoid relegation rather than battling for Italian titles was able to score what surely still ranks among the biggest coups in sports management history. Napoli became the new unlikely home of El Pibe de Oro, and the rest is the stuff of legend.

Kapadia’s purview is to mine the history behind the myth and beginning with that first press conference, continuously interrupted by chanting fans  (a scene that could be torn from a neorealist film by Pasolini or Francesco Rosi) he sets meticulously to the task. With the aid only if natural sound and some off-screen interviews as narration, we see Maradona’s first influence grow, gradually making his new club rise in the standings. Meanwhile, we learn of his hardscrabble childhood in the slum of Villa Fiorito outside Buenos Aires and meet his poor parents.

The heart of this film lies in considerable part with the Neapolitan fans and how they embrace the football hero as a demigod come to restore their pride. Naples, Italy’s most soulful city is also profoundly religious and the “tifosi” pour their devotion into their hero without reserve. One episode that is recounted is how a vial of Maradona’s blood finds its way from a medical test lab to the city cathedral, where it is stored next to that of Naples’ patron saint San Gennaro. The story of Maradona cannot be understood apart from this context and the fact that Italy remains to this day deeply divided in two: the modern, industrialized and sophisticated north and the rural and underdeveloped south. On the backdrop of this “segregationist” dynamic (where southern teams are routinely received with racist taunts when they visit northern stadiums), Maradona restores dignity to his fans with every goal. Victories against northern rivals especially become collective catharses, almost spiritual experiences for the crowd.

In 1986 Maradona rejoins Argentina, his national team, to play in the World Cup in Mexico the tournament which included the winning goal against England later revealed to have been scored by a hand ball (the infamous Mano de Dios). Coming as it was on the heels of Argentina’s defeat by England in the Falklands war a year earlier, it was seen as symbolic national revenge and again Maradona was a purveyor if redemption (to the poor, the downtrodden, the weak…)

This is the lot of a player whose exploits were always destined to transcend the realm of simple sports superstardom and take on social and political meaning. His parable climaxes the following year when Maradona almost singlehandedly lifts Napoli to its first-ever national title. The rapture this unleashed in Naples is difficult to describe (although once again the amazing archive Kapadia is working with helps.) One shot shows a sign hung at the city’s cemetery entrance: “You don’t know what you are missing!”

As is often the case the apex is also the beginning of the decline, in Maradona’s case, a downward spiral helped by large amounts of cocaine supplied to him by local mob bosses but rooted in the impossible expectations and transference of mass desire placed on his shoulders. A double portrait begins to emerge, one of Diego, the player and once simple youngster from the Buenos Aires streets, the other of “Maradona” the public persona constructed by the media and soccer fandom, which has to shoulder the impossible burden of fame and adoration.

The latter public construct eventually takes over and dooming the man to addiction and eventually the athlete the final indignity: arrest, suspension, and  ignominious retirement.

A definitive portrait of a polarizing figure capable to this day of bringing together people from the farthest reaches of the world. This film has the potential of doing the same.