Diego Maradona Review: The Greatest Footballer of All Time Observed Like Never Before

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Diego Maradona Review: The Greatest Footballer of All Time Observed Like Never Before

Illustration: Arati Gujar

 

There are no video interviews of Diego Maradona, widely regarded as the greatest footballer of all time, in Oscar-winning director Asif Kapadia’s latest documentary on the retired Argentine legend. It’s a move that is directly in line with the vérité filmmaking style Kapadia has fashioned and perfected in two biographical documentaries (Senna, Amy) he helmed in the last decade. Both these piercing portraits eked out the trajectories of two distinctive, doomed lives without relying on the presence of its subjects, riding instead on the back of archival footage and personal testimonials. Yet there’s one crucial difference between the enforced absence of the subjects of these two documentaries and Diego Maradona: Maradona, unlike the Brazilian national F1 hero Ayrton Senna and troubled British pop-star Amy Winehouse, is still alive. 

Yet in a way, the fact that the fabled footballer doesn’t physically appear in Diego Maradona despite his accessibility remains the key to the intimate, explosive documentary. As Kapadia illustrates in 130 minutes, the sunken (meme-worthy) Maradona of today isn’t the subject of Diego Maradona. Instead, the director is invested in the Maradona from a time when he was a “rebel, cheat, hero, god” until he suddenly wasn’t. What he is even more adamant in having is a record of the period when Diego, born to a simple family in an impoverished shanty town outside Buenos Aires, became a prisoner of Maradona, the celebrity he created for himself. 

In that sense, Diego Maradona is foremost, a cautionary examination of the duality of a sporting demigod who was revered for being indestructible and simultaneously punished for that very invincibility. Besides the naturally thrilling encapsulation of Maradona’s highlight reel of goals (including that “hand of god” header), the indisputable charm of the documentary remains how Kapadia locates a bittersweet grace in Maradona’s fall from grace. It’s the primary source of Diego Maradona feeling at once, impossibly heart-wrenching as well as enthralling.

The documentary is culled from over 500 hours of never-seen-before footage from one particular decade, beginning in 1984 when Maradona, then a reigning footballer went from Barcelona (Kapadia distills his reign to a tight, dramatic five-minute opening montage) to the Napoli team for a record $13 million. The director stitches together reams of grainy home video material, U-matic and one-inch-tapes, and media coverage in varying formats, soundtracked to telling voiceovers from friends, family, journalists, historians, and Maradona himself. On more than one occasion, Diego Maradona feels nothing short of a masterclass in Kapadia imagining filmmaking as effective sourcing – it’s an outing that boasts more of the rigour of investigative journalism than cinematic flourishes. 

Kapadia’s Diego Maradona boasts more of the rigour of investigative journalism than cinematic flourishes.

Collaborating with long-time editor Chris King and City of God composer Antonio Pinto, the director fuses visuals and sound together in gloriously evocative ways. By eschewing the traditional techniques of documentary filmmaking and choosing to not show the talking heads of the interviewees, Kapadia ensures that their recollections don’t interrupt the flow of the images. Instead they serve as additives by providing context to them as they play out on screen. At one point, when Maradona’s voice accompanies visuals of a tense match, it’s almost as if the footballer is commenting on his ill-fated story himself. 

The ripple effect of Kapadia’s signature approach in letting the visuals speak for themselves has a hypnotic quality that spills over to the viewing experience as well. Over the course of the documentary, one becomes adept in searching, observing, and dissecting Maradona’s face for clues to the storms in his mind. There’s an indelible sequence that is in itself a worthy evidence of Kapadia’s prowess in excavating a story out of silences and persistent observations. The scene comprises footage from the Naples’ team’s annual Christmas party which marks the turning point that signals Maradona’s downfall: As the background sounds fade out, the camera captures Maradona sitting by himself, getting increasingly distracted. At one point, it freezes on his face, which wears a distressing, distant gaze that somehow feels underlined by an awareness of impending doom. Being a witness to this scene feels eerie, like watching a accident victim minutes before he is about to crash – a blatant violation of someone’s privacy.

It is curious moments like these that are the beating heart of Diego Maradona, which mines universality from its specificity. One of the strengths of the documentary is Kapadia’s angle into it. He plays with time: Instead of covering the vast expanse of the footballer’s career, rife with controversies, a child out of wedlock, and confusing beliefs, he sticks to tracking a 10-year period that can be best described as the second wave of Maradona’s rise in Naples. And yet, this period, that includes championship as well as World Cup Wins, spans a lifetime: It is both, the beginning of the Maradona our memories still cling to, and the end of the Maradona whose bloopers we intermittently see in present day.

In the documentary, Kapadia uses Maradona’s striking athleticism (there’s a comment about his brain being stronger than his body) on field as a dramatic interlude to the distractions that puncture his life. The footballer’s dexterity is a thing of joy to watch on any screen, irrespective of how many times it is replayed. But what Kapadia is after is making us recognise the context, the price, and the consequences that it accompanies (A voiceover adds “Diego has nothing to do with Maradona but Maradona drags Diego wherever he goes”). He focuses on Maradona’s crushing unhappiness at Napoli (“I was Maradona’s jailor,” the team President confesses), his cocaine addiction as a counter to survive the unending demands made from his body, and most importantly, the ramifications of that 1990 World Cup semi-final match between Italy and Argentina where the country that he called his “home” turned on him after he took Argentina to the finals.

Even though its frenetic, dizzying pace can sometimes feel like it is detrimental to its ambition, Diego Maradona is that sports biopic that gets close to questioning whether the responsibility a football legend had towards living up to the expectations of the world was worth the self-destruction that they have to invariably weather. Kapadia is at his strongest when he cleverly unravels the selfishness of sport: the last word it has on expecting ordinary, flawed men to practice an impeccable degree of nobility and heroism, its language of boundaries and punishment, and the fickleness of adulation. These themes are cinched together by perhaps, the saddest climactic sequence that features a bloated Maradona from 2004, then institutionalised (he calls the psychiatric hospital a “pigsty”), breaking down on national television. It makes you want to look away but it’s hard to.

Early on in the documentary, a young Maradona brags that “football is a game of deceit”. In Diego Maradona, Kapadia takes that thought and runs with it, arguing that maybe being Diego Armando Maradona is the biggest game of deceit. 

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