'Messi': Venice Review

This absorbing but bland documentary happily sustains the myth rather than scrutinizing it

A celebration of the life and achievements to date of the world’s best soccer player brings Venice Days to a close

"One day, you’ll be the best in the world," his grandmother told the young Lionel Messi. And guess what? A celebration of the rise and rise of the world’s finest soccer player (probably), for some the finest of all time, Alex de la Iglesia’s Messi gathers friends and colleagues together over restaurant tables to reminisce and reflect on the record-smashing Barcelona and Argentina star, interspersing the accolades with personal and professional footage and with re-created scenes from his upbringing. Anyone hoping for a real peek behind the PR of the man they dubbed “the Flea” will be disappointed. But given the major limitation that access was not granted to either the player or his family, as simple celebration Messi definitely scores.

One of the enduring images of the recent 2014 soccer World Cup was of Messi, still only 27, forlornly clutching his best player of the tournament award after his team, Argentina, lost in the final to Germany. The World Cup is the one thing that Messi hasn’t won. It is an image of uncertainty in the face of global scrutiny, an intriguing crack in the Messi iconography that this film doesn't want to pry open.

Early sequences have friends (and even former teachers) recounting anecdotes from Messi’s childhood, with the aid of photos and home video. Soccer fans will be impatiently tapping their feet through much of this, though the footage of him weaving his way through defenses en route to the next goal is compelling. When the soccer pros — players, managers past and present, and journos — weigh in to talk about Messi’s new start in Spain, things become more interesting, with something for both the soccer non-expert and the aficionado. Key events, mostly already familiar to fans, are gone over from a range of perspectives, and the talk never becomes too techie. 

One of the problems that de la Iglesia faces is that Messi — unlike that other Argentine soccer icon, the fiery, polemical Diego Maradona, with whom he is too often compared, or unlike his current rival for world’s best, Cristiano Ronaldo, a Star with a capital "S" — comes across as agreeable but not particularly interesting. He seems to be a nice, shy, middle-class kid from the provinces (specifically Rosario) who loves his family (especially his deceased maternal grandmother) — though blessed with an unusual talent and determination that the film doesn’t explore. Perhaps Messi’s people didn’t let de la Iglesia get close enough, or perhaps he really is like that; the one blemish on his reputation, a run-in with the tax man, is quickly glossed over in a "nobody’s perfect" aside.

Basically, Messi’s story is the standard combination of talent, determination and luck. The only major stumbling block to success — and so practically the only conflict in this particular narrative — is that he was born deficient in a growth hormone, a condition that required costly medication. Had his family not made immense sacrifices, and had not the Barcelona football club recognized his raw talent, today there'd be no Messi as we know him. The script, by former Real Madrid player and coach Jorge Valdano, desperately seizes on this narrative nugget, working it up with regular shots of the young lad determinedly injecting himself.

The fact that modern soccer matches are filmed from a thousand different angles means that the live footage of Messi's jaw-dropping skills is excitingly staged for maximum drama. But the best thing about Messi is its talk. Interviewees are pretty much all fluid conversationalists (contrary to stereotype, even the soccer players), and they've been cannily selected. (That such global stars as Messi’s fellow players Gerard Pique and Andres Iniesta agreed to participate further underpins the "Messi as Nice Guy" theory.)

A former coach, Kike Dominguez, reflects that when he sees Messi run, he likes to think that he’s responsible for one of the player’s beads of sweat. Messi’s current Barcelona teammate Javier Mascherano reveals something of himself when he reflects on what it would be like to be Messi for five seconds, just to feel the sensation. The charismatic, philosophizing former Argentina coach Cesar Menotti offers great value every time he appears. And for those still interested — yes, the non-issue of whether Maradona or Messi is better is also tackled.

Sometimes clearly staged, the dinner-table chat flows on, often engrossing, but rarely revealing. Anyone can see that a football sticks preternaturally closely to Messi’s feet as he moves, or that he can change pace and direction from one step to the next — but how does that happen? And what really makes the Flea tick?

Whether you like them or not, Spaniard de la Iglesia’s own films — often black, edgy comedies — are always distinctive, but that distinctiveness is mostly absent here. What remains of the director’s style are wonderful, quick-fire editing by Domingo Gonzalez and moments of visual cleverness, as in the retouching of new, staged footage to look old. But there are few signs of de la Iglesia’s ironic wit in the unremittingly cliched fiction footage. Orchestral music in the background is over-employed, unsubtly dictating the mood.

Production company: Mediapro
Director: Alex de la Iglesia
Screenwriter: Jorge Valdano
Producer: Jaume Roures
Executive producer: Javier Mendez
Director of photography: Kiko de la Rica
Production designer: Antxon Gomez

Editor: Domingo Gonzalez
Music: Joan Valent
Sales: Film Factory

No rating, 93 minutes