Asif Kapadia has produced the most significant portrait of a footballer ever committed to screen. Using a treasure trove of archive footage we meet Diego, a shy mummy’s boy confined to a shantytown on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. He has nothing to offer but his capacity for resilience and burgeoning football talent.
The film begins with a car chase in the chaos of Naples, the grainy footage is captured from the inside of a car chasing down the world’s most expensive footballer, Maradona. The intense sound of traffic and cheering is interspersed with Todd Terje’s 80’s disco mix, Delorean Dynamite. Maradona arrives at the Stadio San Paolo (Napoli’s home stadium) to a chorus of 85,000 fans cheering his name, the noise is jaw-dropping and is worth the price of admission alone. The audience barely has time to catch a breath before Maradona proclaims, “I have come to Napoli to find peace”, only Maradona would go to Naples in search of peace. Diego, the boy, is gone, he is now Maradona, a demigod at the mercy of storytellers. What follows is 2 hours of original footage curated by Kapadia to make a drama about tragedy and genius.
Much like his previous works, Senna and Amy, Kapadia rejects traditional documentary tropes such as the use of talking heads. Instead, Kapadia has created a thoroughly exhilarating cinematic experience. Everything is amplified, particularly the impact of fouls and tackles against Maradona, leaving you feeling as battered and bruised as he was.
Like a heroic ballerina, our protagonist dances his way through adversity. In the summer of 1984, Maradona joins lowly Napoli, the modern-day equivalent of Lionel Messi joining Sheffield United. Napoli’s place in Italian football was mirrored by society, the Juventus Ultras summed this up best, describing Naples as the “sewer of Italy”.
Soon things begin to change, as a winning version of Napoli takes shape on the football pitch, propelled, single-handedly (there’s a joke there somewhere) by Maradona. In and amongst the daily Neopolitan digest of organised crime, racism and traffic jams, Maradona becomes engulfed in glorious blasphemy, there is a new patron Saint of Naples, and he wears the number 10 shirt for Napoli.
Maradona’s Naples story is briefly interrupted by the small matter of the 1986 World Cup. This is the Maradona that most people know, as the film states, a player who combined “a little bit of cheating with a lot of genius”. I am referring to the infamous ‘Hand of God’, the moment Maradona punched the ball into the England net, deceiving the referee in the process.
The Argentinians are painted as victims by Kapadia, a context unfamiliar to British audiences. The England players are over-aggressive in their attempts to thwart Maradona, elbowing and kicking him at every opportunity. Meanwhile, the English supporters are determined to give the contest a political edge, hardened by the bitter aftertaste caused by the Falkland’s War.
The second of Maradona’s two goals against England has been described as the “goal of the century”, in the film, this moment coincides with the kind of delirious commentary that only exists in South America, “Thank God for football. Thank God for Maradona. Thank God for these tears.” This goal is Maradona’s undisputed masterpiece.
Maradona returned to Naples a World cup winner. He was the best player in the world, the adulation was intense. One voice retorts “with Diego I’d go to the end of the world, with Maradona I wouldn’t take a step”. From this point, Maradona is a hero and heroes are always right. His life in Naples reaches boiling point.
A young woman is interviewed post labour from a hospital bed, holding a baby named Diego Jr in her arms, claiming Maradona to be the father, he denies everything hoping to keep his current girlfriend happy. In 2016, Maradona would finally acknowledge the boy as his own. There are thought to be many more unidentified children to his name, although the documentary fails to recognise this.
Maradona’s talent is juxtaposed by his troubles off the pitch, Kapadia’s film focuses on the euphoria of his success with Napoli, culminating with the first league title in the club’s history, an achievement that Maradona himself proclaimed to be the best of his career. His links with the Camorra (the Neopolitan Mafia) are dealt with a ‘Scorsese’ charm rather than frightening realism. The latter stages of Kapadia’s film channel the decline of Maradona, as his cocaine addiction begins to take hold. He leaves Naples with his reputation in tatters, following years of unrelenting partying and breathtaking football.
At its worst, this film is a feature-length youtube compilation video, featuring some of Maradona’s most admirable goals minus the unbearable dubstep favoured by today’s teenage influencers. Incidentally, the inclusion of Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor in the film’s trailer was one of the reasons I was so desperate to see this film. What this film is not, is a warts and all documentary of a much-loathed man. The audience is unlikely to walk away from this film with a better understanding of Maradona, the person. Moreover, the film is a tribute befitting of the greatest footballer of his generation. What Kapadia has done is exhibit football as a pure art form. The goals were not cheered in the cinema, they were admired, by an audience with presumably little or no personal link to Maradona, Napoli or Argentina. For that alone, this film demands to be seen on the big screen.