Film

After his excellent documentaries Senna and Amy, Asif Kapadia has turned his attention to another modern icon, Diego Maradona. But this new film is inhibited by its narrow vision. By Christos Tsiolkas.

Diego Maradona

Diego Maradona enters Naples' San Paolo stadium in a scene from Asif Kapadia's 'Diego Maradona'.
Credit: Roadshow Films

I am far from an expert on the world game but I did grow up in a soccer-loving household. And I always loved watching Diego Maradona play. At his best he was thrilling, with a genius control over the ball. He had fierce intelligence and seemed to be reading the play in crucial advance of every other player on the field. Alongside those innate smarts and skills, there was his great cunning, his ability to seize any opportunity to snatch the ball from the opposition. This combination of intelligence and guile was most evident in the game that probably still defines his legacy: the 1986 World Cup quarter-final against England, in which he scored both of Argentina’s winning goals. The second goal came after an electrifying 60-metre dribble. But it is the first goal that is infamous, the “hand of God”, where he was not penalised for a goal that had bounced off his hand. Maradona cheekily declared it payback for the Falklands War.

Asif Kapadia’s new documentary, Diego Maradona, includes footage from the 1986 World Cup but the focus is on the footballer’s time at SSC Napoli. A concisely edited pre-credit sequence introduces us to the young Maradona playing in Argentina, and then for FC Barcelona, where his success was undermined by racist taunting, and by an ankle injury that almost ended his career. But after successful surgery, he was signed to the struggling Napoli club for a multimillion-dollar transfer fee. It is with Maradona’s arrival at the southern Italian city that the film really begins.

Kapadia’s previous documentaries include the exhilarating Senna (2010), about the rivalry between formula one drivers Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, and Amy (2015), a deeply moving requiem for singer Amy Winehouse. Kapadia’s strategy as a documentarian is to amass a huge amount of archival material and then judiciously edit the footage to hone the story he wants to tell. On the surface, Kapadia’s style mimics cinéma vérité, the documentary tradition that prioritises observation. He eschews re-creations or talking heads, and he uses very little on-screen narration. But when one thinks over his films, it becomes clear he has developed the narrative arc from the beginning of the filmmaking process. Kapadia doesn’t shoot the footage himself. The shock of accident is never part of his films, and often a second viewing reveals just how forensically he has led the viewer to accept his version of events. Both Senna and Amy enthralled me but it was only afterwards, discussing them over a drink with friends, that I felt squeamish about the manipulation at the core of his work.

Of course, even the most avowedly fly-on-the-wall documentary is put together in the editing room, and the filmmaker’s intentions will shape both narrative and meaning. In the two earlier films, the fact that most of us knew the outcome of the stories before viewing them – that Senna was killed in a horrific grand prix accident, and that Winehouse overdosed and died in her 20s – mitigated somewhat the marked authorial intent in the structuring of the material. But Maradona is still alive and his legacy isn’t only as a footballer but also as an outspoken critic of imperialism. He’s a hugely divisive figure and many of us will bring our prejudices against him, or our affection for him, into the cinema. I was prepared to have the myths around Maradona challenged. I’m less satisfied that Kapadia has ended up with a simplistic and moralistic take on the myth.

When the documentary concentrates on Maradona’s time at Napoli, the tone is assured and exciting. Maradona seems touchingly young and hopeful in the interviews he gives when he first goes to Italy, and there is something equally stirring in the enthusiastic welcome that the Neapolitans give him. A large part of Maradona’s appeal was that he was a kid from the colonised world – he was born in the slums of Buenos Aires – who through sheer talent and determination became one of the most famous sportspeople on the planet. For the Neapolitans, then derided as the “Africans” of Italy, he embodied a hope that with his signing they could challenge the dominance of the richer northern clubs. There is truly shocking footage in Diego Maradona of the Napoli team playing in the north and being taunted as “cholera carriers”, and of chants ringing through the stadium for the southerners to “Take a wash, take a wash!” Kapadia’s deft use of the archival footage gives us a faithful, sensual rendering of this near past, capturing both the poverty and the spiritedness of the city. Maradona is the underdog hero and so is the city he is playing for.

It is in the unravelling of the hero that the film begins to lose coherence. Towards the end of his time in Naples, Maradona became addicted to cocaine, and his reputation was also undermined by his lack of courage when he refused to claim paternity of a child who was clearly his. In the 1990 World Cup, Argentina squared off against Italy in the semi-finals. Maradona kicked a winning penalty for Argentina, and the Italian fans turned against him. He was subsequently charged with drug trafficking, and condemned for his links to the Camorra. He left Europe and returned to Buenos Aires.

Throughout the documentary, people refer to the footballer as being torn between his real self, Diego, the shy young kid from the slums, and Maradona, the persona he created to deal with his celebrity. There’s an implicit claim that Kapadia is making in using both names for the title – that his film captures the private and the public truth of the man. It stands in contrast to a previous documentary about the footballer, 2008’s Maradona by Kusturica. Directed by the Bosnian-Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica, this earlier film was widely criticised for ignoring Maradona’s failings. There’s no way I can claim that Kusturica’s film is better: it’s shambolic, jittery and hectoring, and often incoherent, as if put together under the influence of a coke haze. But what it does do, and what Kapadia’s film doesn’t, is capture why for so many soccer fans Maradona remains such a galvanising figure. The Maradona who called George W. Bush a war criminal, the Maradona who has never stopped castigating the Western world for its imperialism and exploitation, is hardly glimpsed in Kapadia’s documentary. When I saw Kusturica’s film I was reminded of the jubilant reaction of many of my parents’ peers to Maradona’s goals in the 1986 World Cup. They cheered his brilliance as a footballer with that astounding second goal but they were ecstatic that he also gave Britain the finger with the provocation of the “hand of God”. For many working-class and immigrant communities across the globe, Maradona remains a hero because he remained defiantly proud of his roots. That’s the myth that Maradona by Kusterica exalts.

Kusturica’s film was hagiography, unsophisticated and myopic. But Kapadia, too, has failed to adequately grasp the full meaning of Maradona’s life and legacy. Senna and Amy were impressive for their concision but Diego Maradona feels bloated. Much of the power of the two earlier documentaries came from the expert work of the editor, Chris King. King’s editing in the Naples section is again equally taut but there are too many moments in the film where we return to the same events, or where ideas are restated, without their building to a more comprehensive understanding of the footballer. Kapadia’s focus is unrelentingly domestic and personal. We don’t see enough of the skills that made Maradona one of the greatest footballers of all time. One of the most dynamic aspects of Senna was the use of VHS and Beta archival footage. Kapadia grasped that video could not only look beautiful but also be redolent of nostalgia when blown up for the big screen. The interplay between the blanched images sourced from network television archives and the highly saturated and overexposed home-video footage was essential in conveying the tragedy of Senna’s story. His handsomeness was almost Apollonian – he seems immortal in the video fragments – and so when his death occurs we are still shocked by it. Senna kept surprising me.

In Diego Maradona, as much of the footage is dull and repetitive, there’s not much pleasure to be had by the look of the film. This, too, betrays that their subject has eluded the filmmakers. It’s as if Kapadia and King started off knowing they wanted Maradona’s story to be a cautionary tale and they’ve tried to bash the material to fit this mould. There are no surprises in the film because the filmmakers have precluded that possibility from the outset.

Diego Maradona is so much larger than life, so complicated and contradictory as a person and a historic figure, and the problem with the film is that Kapadia wants to cut him down to size, to point the finger at his drug use and excesses, his personal failings, as being the summation of the man. It’s such a narrow and petty way of approaching this story but maybe perfectly attuned to our contemporary world, to the tiresome injunction that only the personal is political. Diego Maradona is scaled for your smartphone. It’s puny.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 3, 2019 as "Own goals". Subscribe here.

Christos Tsiolkas
is the author of The Slap and Barracuda. He is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.