'Diego Maradona': Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Strong on source material, weak on detail.

Oscar-winning 'Amy' director Asif Kapadia returns to Cannes with another found-footage documentary, this time on controversial soccer superstar Diego Maradona.

A genius on the football field, a self-destructive rebel off it, Diego Maradona is a ripe subject for the warts-and-all documentary treatment. Following his acclaimed bio-docs Senna and Amy, British Oscar winner Asif Kapadia would seem the natural choice to direct this portrait of Argentina’s mostly notorious sporting anti-hero. Indeed, Kapadia himself calls Diego Maradona the third chapter in a “trilogy.”

Kapadia tracks the soccer superstar's journey from shanty-town slum kid to quasi-religious icon, with special focus on his explosive seven years with Italian underdog team Naples, his infamous “hand of God” goal at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico and his troubled relationship with his illegitimate son, Diego Jr. However, the director's latest rise-and-fall chronicle suffers from a few structural problems that did not bedevil Senna or Amy. Most obviously, the subject is still very much alive, which may explain why this officially endorsed film feels more cautious and compromised than it might have been.

As ever with Kapadia, Diego Maradona delivers a typically strong technical package, but there are no real bombshell revelations or deep personal insights here. This is a lesser film than its Premier League predecessors Senna and Amy. Even so, Maradona’s enduring worldwide fame and Kapadia’s solid track record should score highly at the box office, especially in soccer-mad Latin America and Europe. Ahead of its world premiere in Cannes, HBO signed up U.S. rights, with a streaming debut scheduled from September.

As with Senna and Amy, this film’s big selling point is a previously unseen treasure trove of behind-the-scenes video footage, much of it from Maradona’s personal archive. With impressive foresight, the star’s early agent Jorge Cyterszpiler hired Argentinian cameraman Juan Laburu and Italian Luigi Martucci to document Maradona’s life and career with fly-on-the-wall intimacy, decades before the confessional age of selfies and Instagram. Some of this material was shot on antique analogue formats like U-Matic, lending the visuals an agreeably retro texture, the kind of fuzzy lo-fi effect that J.J. Abrams might spend millions trying to re-create for a found-footage horror movie.

Having sifted 500 hours of material, Kapadia finds some great set pieces, including his opening scene. Set to a thumping Euro disco soundtrack, Maradona's high-speed drive through Naples on the day he signed for the club in July 1984 has a real kinetic drama, with hair-raising echoes of the car chases in The French Connection. The anarchic press conference that follows is a near riot, with ecstatic fans chanting Maradona’s name while club chairman Corrado Ferlaino ejects a reporter for hinting at links between the club and local mafia clans. A prophetic question, as it turns out.

For soccer fans, Diego Maradona offers a feast of treats: match-winning goals, savage tackles, ferocious training sessions, rowdy post-match celebrations. But for football agnostics hoping for some psychological or political context, the experience is less rewarding. Although Kapadia secured official approval and first-hand interview access, the present-day audio quotes he gleans from Maradona are scrappy and unrevealing. There is disappointingly scant evidence here of his famously fearless candor and loose-cannon charisma. Even Emir Kusturica’s 2008 documentary on the football icon, a far more undisciplined and partisan affair than this, got more from Maradona.

Kapadia also seems oddly selective in his choice of time frame and narrative focus. While he rightly concentrates on Maradona’s career peak at Naples, juicy subplots involving his cocaine addiction, his assignations with prostitutes and his ties to local mafia godfathers are very light on detail. Despite his womanizing ways, this film is emphatically not In Bed With Maradona. Kapadia’s signature reliance on archive material feels more like a limitation here than on Senna and Amy.

The women in Maradona’s life during his Naples heyday, notably his wife (now ex-wife) Claudia Villafane and secret lover Cristiana Sinagra, are ghostly presences in the film. The long second act of his career as a coach and manager in Argentina, Dubai and Mexico is almost absent altogether. Likewise Kapadia ignores his outspoken political statements and contentious friendships with left-wing Latin American leaders Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro. This strangely muted, neutral tone weakens the film.

Kapadia attempts to explain Maradona’s rocky post-Naples career as a kind of guilty reaction to his illegitimate son, Diego Jr., whom he only acknowledged in 2016. But this sense of closure feels forced. Especially since, in March this year, the 58-year-old soccer legend admitted paternity of three more children in Cuba. This film is a solidly made summary of his golden years, full of energy and swagger. But Maradona’s colorful life story is richer and stranger, deeper and darker than the greatest-hits reel captured here.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production company: On the Corner
Cast: Diego Armando Maradona, Maria Rosa Maradona, Claudia Villafane, Cristiana Sinagra, Diego Armando Maradona Jr, Corrado Ferlaino, Ciro Ferrara
Director-screenwriter: Asif Kapadia
Producers: James Gay-Rees, Paul Martin
Archive producers: Lina Caicedo, Fiametta Luino
Editor: Chris King
Music: Antonio Pinto
Director: Asif Kapadia
Sales company: Altitude
130 minutes