review by joey fanthom
Diego Maradona is a documentary feature directed by Asif Kapadia, who previously helmed the brilliant Senna (2010) and the Academy Award winning Amy (2015). The film follows the life and career of the eponymous former Argentine international footballer (deemed by many to be the greatest player the game has ever seen) through the use of meticulously arranged archive footage. The film focuses particularly on his eight-year stay at the Italian club Napoli from the rousing welcome he received upon his arrival from tens of thousands of Napoli fans, to his acrimonious departure amid controversy over his drug use.
As with Senna and Amy, which are about Formula One driver Ayrton Senna and singer Amy Winehouse respectively, Kapadia here has chosen an extremely compelling subject for his film. It is another fascinating study of the detrimental effect that public scrutiny and celebrity status can have on young talent. The on-field footage is a joy to watch, capturing Maradona at his best, gliding past defenders with a pace and control that is so rarely seen, a showcase of natural genius and ability. In the world of football, Maradona is an almost mythic presence at this point, but the film does a great job of dispelling some of that and getting to the root of the man at the heart of the myth who is a deeply complex character.
Throughout the film, voiceovers from different people who were close to the man himself, such as his former Napoli fitness coach and friend Fernando Signorini, explain the duality of his personality: a divide between the private ‘Diego’ and the public persona of ‘Maradona’ which manifests itself in myriad ways. There is the loving partner playing tennis with wife Claudia versus the party boy flirting and dancing with an array of women, and the dedicated trainer running on a treadmill versus the wild man going on three-day coke benders after matches. Signorini says he would walk forever with Diego but not move one step with Maradona. The film never tries to criticise nor glorify any aspect of his off-field behaviour, but merely to give a candid account of a conflicted human being.
There is an interesting parallel between his own marginalised status growing up in the slums of Buenos Aires and the way that the Neapolitans are marginalised by other Italians. There are clips from away games in the northern cities like Turin and Milan with chants telling them to wash and that they have cholera. As a result, Maradona, a man of the people, is adored there to the point of deification, but the weight of expectation is too much for the young man a long way from home and the city swallows him up. There is an increasing involvement with the Camorra crime family the Giulianos, starting with attendance at business openings but escalating to cocaine dependence when his request to leave the club for a less stressful environment is denied by its president. Despite the alarming regularity of his drug use, Maradona still led Napoli to a title that year. He was just that good.
The film is essential viewing for football fans but also offers a deeply engaging and thought-provoking character study for the casual viewer. It runs out of steam a little towards the end as the pacing drops significantly in the last half-hour, in contrast to the relentless intensity of Senna, though this could be down to the lack of a definitive conclusion. The tragically early ending of a great career is still apparent here, but Maradona lives on while Senna and Winehouse both died, and the film fizzles out after he leaves Napoli. That should not take away, however, from the admirable job that Kapadia does in providing a compelling and intimate insight into this complex personality, deconstructing the myth surrounding him to showcase the man, flaws and all.
Diego Maradona will screen in the Irish Film Institute from June 11th.