Whereas his two previous documentaries had one word titles referring to their subjects (Senna and Oscar-winner Amy), director Asif Kapadia decided to use a full name for the title and focus of his new docudrama. Diego Maradona, the most famous and enigmatic of all three, is presented by his full name, perhaps because of his dichotomous nature, as shown throughout this fascinating film. Having sifted through over 1000 hours of archival footage, Kapadia presents us with not only a fascinating story but a comment on the culture of fame.
Early on, we’re introduced to his personal trainer through the 1980s, Fernando Signorini. He describes two central figures - Diego, the insecure, sweet kid from the ghettos of Buenos Aires and Maradona, the egotistical public persona. Signorini says that he would walk to the ends of the earth with Diego, but that he wouldn’t take one step with Maradona. When discussing this with the footballer himself, he cheekily replies that they would never have arrived in such a lofty position without the latter. As this extraordinary story unravels, we’re asked how much of Diego is left once Maradona takes over?
Whilst the story takes us through Diego’s childhood and shows us glimpses of his rise to fame through playing spells at Boca Juniors and FC Barcelona, the film finds its narrative arc and focal point in the wild and tumultuous 7 year spell at SSC Napoli. Naples is a place where Maradona is, to this day, revered as a deity. A place where he reached the status of a demigod by bringing unprecedented success to a failing team and embodying the underdog spirit of the city and team. As Kapadia recently stated, 'Naples and Maradona were made for each other.' Whilst his personal life spiralled out of control through drug addiction, close ties to the Camorra (Neapolitan mob) and an illegitimate child from an extramarital affair, he rose to become the greatest footballer of his generation. Yet Kapadia and editor Chris King intercut his time at Napoli with the wider story of Maradona’s life. We see the story of a shy kid from Buenos Aires who became an icon on the world stage. Kapadia mixes sound and image with the panache of Scorsese. It’s almost as if we could be watching Jake Lamotta on screen. Kapadia is not only interested in showing us what happened, but in asking why. It’s a commentary on fame and the effect of being treated as a god when there’s no one there to keep you on the narrow path.
As with Senna and Amy, Kapadia has a strong handle on tone and a clear narrative arc, as well as great affection for the central character. Whilst this film is honest, it errs on the side of empathy, rarely straying into the territory of judgement when showing some of the darker parts of the star’s life.
The film opens with a long tracking shot from the front seat of a car and a date: 5th July 1984. Accompanied by Antonio Pinto’s electrifying techno score, we race through the narrow, frenzied streets of Naples to a small entrance in the side of the San Paolo, SSC Napoli’s stadium, where 75,000 fans are waiting for their new signing to be unveiled. Kapadia cleverly builds anticipation from the start, making us feel like we’re in the stadium ourselves. The sense of anticipation is palpable, almost as if we’re witnessing a chase scene from the Italian Job, rather than 30 year old footage from a handheld camera. As with Senna, the footage is raw and dated, but there’s a visceral quality to the fizz and crackle of the screen that pulls you into this unique time and place: Naples in the 1980s.
From the start, we’re welcomed into this passionate, one-club city; a goldfish bowl of energy and chaos. Napoli had never really known success up to that point. They’d never won the Italian league title and were in the perpetual shadow of teams from the richer cities in the north. Not only that, Naples was one of the poorest, crime-filled cities in Europe. The underdog spirit of the locals resonated with Maradona and mirrored his own mentality. As the youngest of 5 children, growing up in the poorest part of Buenos Aires, Argentina, he was brought up to be tough and to strive for success in challenging circumstances.
Kapadia has commented on the challenge of finding Maradona’s rival, the foil or counterpoint who drives the core tension of the narrative. Ayrton Senna had Alain Prost, but who rivalled the genius of Maradona in his day? Kapadia recently stated that the turning point in making this film was the realisation that the battle was actually internal: it was Diego vs Maradona.
Diego Maradona is treated with the reverence and pathos of a lead character in a classical tragedy. As it is with rise and fall stories painted by cinema’s finest, the focus isn’t on historical events, but on a person. Just as Raging Bull doesn’t ask you to care about boxing, nor does Jaws ask you to care about a bloodthirsty shark, this film doesn’t ask you to invest your emotion in sport, but in Diego Maradona and the story of one of the true icons of the 20th century.
Rating - 9/10
Review by Dave Howarth (@georgesaloon_)