You don’t need to know much about soccer to get caught up in ‘Diego Maradona’, a propulsive archival documentary on the celebrated and infamous Argentine footballer. In the film, a sports journalist, Daniel Arcucci, says Maradona’s notoriety can be understood by comparing two goals he scored in a single 1986 match, when Argentina faced England in the World Cup quarter finals. (For some, the pairing accorded Argentina an opportunity to avenge its loss in the 1982 Falklands War.)
In that game, Maradona scored twice — once by (accidentally, he has said) knocking the ball into the goal with his hand, a violation that he was never called on, and once after a thrilling display of athleticism. Taken together, the journalist says, those two points illustrate the contradictions of Maradona: He was a cheater and a genius, a player to be loathed and loved.
The director Asif Kapadia threads these dichotomies throughout the film, and also repeatedly returns to another, somewhat more trite idea: that there was an apparent split between ‘Diego’, the private individual, and ‘Maradona’, the personality the player cultivated for the news media. Here, according to the film, was an insecure child of poverty who supported his family from his teenage years; went to play in Italy for the luckless Napoli team (he says he expected to travel by Ferrari and ended up with a Fiat); and became a hero to the impoverished city, which is shown enduring classless taunts — “hello cholera sufferers,” reads one sign — from fans of teams from wealthier parts of the country.
Multiple people say that he was effectively a god in Naples at the height of his popularity. In public life, Maradona didn’t act like a man of humble origins. From the monstrous cache of 1980s and ‘90s videotape that Kapadia has assembled, we see a curly maned nightclub hound who was happy to play the part of a high-living party animal.
In the 2011 film ‘Senna’ (about race car driver Ayrton Senna) and the Oscar-winning ‘Amy’ (on Amy Winehouse), Kapadia demonstrated that he was a formidable spelunker of archives. That’s just as true here. It helps that Maradona (still alive in his late 50s) left plenty of camera-mugging for Kapadia to work with. It also helps that his life followed the rough contours of a Scorsese movie.
As Kapadia’s film tells it, Maradona’s increased exposure coincided with ballooning irresponsibility (he fathered a son he didn’t acknowledge for three decades). We’re told that a ferocious cocaine habit indebted him to the Neapolitan mob. Maradona’s world became a tinderbox that only true temerity could ignite. For Maradona, that boldly stupid gesture came when he played for Argentina against Italy, in Italy, in the 1990 World Cup — and played well.
Part of Kapadia’s achievement in ‘Diego Maradona’ is that he has edited cruddy video footage (some of which appears barely more than camcorder-grade) and photographs into a movie so fluid that it moves like a Hollywood production. He also dispenses with much of the filler common to documentaries. Interviews that other filmmakers might show as talking heads are simply heard in voice-over, complementing or illustrating the archival imagery, of which this film seems to have squeezed in more per minute of runtime than most. The result is a movie that, for better or worse, takes a bit more than two hours to watch and feels twice as full.
But perhaps ‘Diego Maradona’, like Diego Maradona, simply had to be a movie of contradictions. It is exhausting and exhilarating, cheap looking and slick, a documentary for Maradona fans but also for many others besides.
Don’t miss it!
‘Diego Maradona’ is showing at Cinema Akil until September 27.