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A fitting tribute to perhaps the greatest of all time - in all his genius, sagacity, hedonism, and excess
In his third feature-length documentary, director Asif Kapadia turns for the first time to a still-living subject; arguably the greatest footballer to ever lace up a pair of boots, Diego Armando Maradona. As famous for his on-field brilliance as his lavish lifestyle and volatility off the pitch, Maradona lived (and continues to live) his controversial life very much in the public eye. A complex web of contradictions (religious but hedonistic; humble but arrogant; frugal but materialistic; respectful but condescending), he is depicted as uniquely and supremely talented, but unable to handle the fame.
An important connection between Kapadia's three subjects (Ayrton Senna, Amy Winehouse, and Maradona) is that all three were destroyed, one way or another, by their talent - Senna died in a Formula 1 crash aged 34, Amy Winehouse succumbed to alcohol poisoning aged 27, and Maradona became a victim of his own success; in the prime of his life, his career imploded amidst legal trouble, vilification in the press, controversy on the field, an illegitimate son, cocaine, bans, and association with the Camorra. Somehow, he survived it all, going on to manage several teams, including his beloved Argentina, and although the film ends on something of an unnecessary downer, and although the narrow focus on the period from 1984 to 1992 will be sure to disappoint those looking for a more conventional overview, the fact is that it's in those few years where the legend was born, where it reached its apotheosis, and where it ultimately self-destructed.
Made with the cooperation of the man himself, Kapadia was granted access to Maradona's personal video archives. This is actually the second time a documentarian filmmaker has been allowed into the archives; the first was Emir Kusturica, whose Maradona by Kusturica (2008) is a more conventional bio. Wisely, Kapadia only uses footage which Kusturica did not, so there's no overlap between the two films.
Kapadia and his regular editor Chris King begin the film with some brief biographical material about Maradona's childhood and early professional career, before focusing on some of the major events from 1984-1992 - his arrival at Napoli for a then world-record fee of £6.9 million, when he was welcomed at the Stadio San Paolo by 85,000 fans; his disappointing first season; the 1986 World Cup, in which he scored both the greatest goal of all time and one of the most controversial, leading a very average Argentinian squad to victory; the birth of his illegitimate son, Diego Sinagra; Napoli's first ever league title in the 1986-1987 Serie A season; his growing association with the Giuliano crime family and his spiralling cocaine addiction; Napoli's second Serie A title, 1988-1989; their first European title, the 1989 UEFA Cup; the 1990 World Cup, in which Maradona found himself lining out for Argentina against Italy at the San Paolo - a high-pressure situation that wasn't helped when he said in an interview before the match that Naples wasn't really Italy, and he expected the Napoli fans to cheer for Argentina rather than their national team; his vilification in the press after scoring a key penalty; the Napoli fans turning on him; his April 1991 arrest and 15-month suspension for testing positive for cocaine; his low-key departure from Napoli in 1992.
One of the things the film does exceptionally well is simply to remind us just how insanely talented Maradona was. Never the finest physical specimen, as is mentioned in the film, his greatest asset wasn't his acceleration and speed, his difficult to disrupt low centre of gravity, his physical resiliency, his dribbling ability, or even his fabled left foot - it was his brain. His genius was not unlike that which one finds in chess grandmasters; whereas his opponents and teammates could look at a situation and calculate where the ball might be in five seconds, Maradona could look at that same situation and know precisely where the ball would be in ten seconds. His bursts of speed were unlike anything the sport had ever seen, nor has there been anything comparable since, but it wasn't just that he could waltz past defenders like they weren't even there, it was his ability to choose exactly the path he needed to take to put himself in the best possible position after he'd passed them.
As one would expect from Kapadia, the film's aesthetic design is exceptional. The opening scene is especially attention-grabbing - set to a pounding disco soundtrack, the film begins with what appears to be a car chase through the streets of Naples. Racing through narrow streets at breakneck speeds, the scene is shot from within one of the cars, and is intercut with snippets mapping out Maradona's childhood, his ankle break in September 1983 whilst playing for Barcelona, and his departure for Napoli in 1984. In this sense, the montage and the 'car chase' dovetail into one another, because what we're actually looking at is Maradona's first arrival at Napoli. It's an unexpectedly frenetic opening to a documentary about a footballer, speaking subtly to the excess and fast living to come.
Unlike both Senna (2010) and Amy (2015), Diego Maradona includes both first name and surname in its title, and whilst this might seem like a superficial element, it's actually of huge thematic importance. The film's central conceit is that Diego Maradona was two personas; the quiet, unassuming street kid who just wanted to help his family and have fun (Diego), and the global superstar, with a different Rolex for every day of the week (Maradona). The film posits that Maradona was a construct built by Diego to help him deal with his fame. The problem, however, as several people attest, was that over time, Maradona began to take over from Diego, even away from the cameras, and as Diego receded further into the shadows, Maradona became increasingly unpleasant and self-absorbed. It's a fascinating way into his psychology and a deceptively simple bit of psychoanalysis.
Perhaps wisely, Kapadia doesn't focus on any one incident as breaking Maradona, suggesting instead that his illegitimate son, the 1990 World Cup, the cocaine addiction, the Camorra ties, the suspension, all had a cumulative effect, and it was the totality that nearly destroyed him. However, Kapadia is clear that the downward spiral began in 1986 with the birth of Diego Sinagra, whom he wouldn't acknowledge as his son until 2016. Drawing attention to the media frenzy that resulted, Kapadia draws attention to the fact that his wife, Claudia Villafañel, was pregnant with a child of her own during the scandal. In relation to the Argentina-Italy game, whilst Kapadia is unequivocal that the Napoli fans overreacted, he is also clear that Maradona's calamitous pre-game interview didn't help. In this sense, although Kapadia flirts with the image of Maradona as a man betrayed by an intrusive press and a fickle public, ultimately it presents him as neither hero nor villain, but as someone caught up in a hurricane partly of his own making.
In terms of problems, perhaps the most obvious one is how narrowly focused the film is, with a good 90% set during his tenure at Napoli. For example, the film barely touches on the infamous brawl that Maradona instigated (albeit after he was incessantly provoked) in the 1984 Copa del Rey final contested by Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao, a brawl which involved every player on each team, most of the subs, many of the coaching staff, and even ground staff, and which resulted in the fans throwing objects at the players and at one another, ultimately resulting in 60 injuries, all in front of King Juan Carlos I. Some footage is shown, but there's no context. There's also only the briefest of mentions of the 1994 World Cup, when he failed another drug test (this time for ephedrine) and was sent home in disgrace, never to play for Argentina again. Likewise, there's nothing whatsoever on his coaching career, during which time he took Argentina to the 2010 World Cup. The film also ends on an uncessarily downbeat note, with Maradona overweight and disillusioned, tearfully confessing his many transgressions on Argentinian TV. Such an ending was entirely avoidable given that the man is still alive and seems to be holding his demons at bay.
This aside, however, Diego Maradona is another exceptional documentary from one of the world's finest documentarians. The trump card is splitting Maradona's persona into two constituent parts, mapping out the difference between the person and the cult of personality. Avoiding hagiography, the film paints him as far from perfect, but so too is it a fitting tribute. A man whose hubris and arrogance nearly destroyed him, nothing he did off the pitch will ever nullify his perfection on it. Ultimately, the film is about how exceptionalism can corrupt, with every misstep he made writ large for all to see. Kapadia translates his chaotic career into compelling drama, telling a story about an individual genius which speaks to the volatility and fickleness of fame. But more than that, it charts what can happen when these two elements combine, creating a perfect storm that may allow for moments of transcendent brilliance, but which ultimately exacts a very steep price.
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