Cannes 2019: Diego Maradona docu strives to be comprehensive, but doesn't offer earth-shattering insights

 
Cannes 2019: Diego Maradona docu strives to be comprehensive, but doesn't offer earth-shattering insights

Asif Kapadia’s documentaries offer an unflinching and dispassionate look into the lives of his subjects, offering startling insights gleaned from already available archival material. Amy records the callous disregard people surrounding the popstar showed her even as she spiralled out of control into her descent and death. Senna paints the picture of a conflicted motor-racing legend, steering the increasingly shifting landscape of the race that culminated in his eventual death.

Diego Maradona is primarily different from his other works since Kapadia’s subject is still very much alive, both physically and in public memory (not too long ago, he was in Kerala in 2012 to open a jewellery showroom and received a rousing welcome, proving how relevant he is even today). There is a risk that dealing with a living subject could limit a director’s critical outlook but Kapadia attempts to overcome this by simply circumventing certain topics not available to him.

The film opens with grainy footage punctuated by the pulsating music of Maradona driving on the streets of Napoli as soon as he was bought over by the down-in-the-dumps Italian team in 1984. The team never amounted to much in the world stage till then, there were more than audible murmurs that the money to buy Maradona came from mafia connections – “Naples, Italy’s poorest city has bought the world’s costliest player,” newscasters avow. Besides, Maradona himself was not in his prime form.

Napoli has a dreadful reputation for losing games and fans get terribly booed in the stadium, but Maradona turns the team's fortunes around. He elevates Napoli’s fortunes from being called 'cholera dogs' to the champions of Italy, winning the Scudetto, the Italian football championships in 1986-87. But even as Naples bets to buy Maradona pays off, the tremendous pull of narcotics brings him closer to the city’s notorious Giuliano clan. He plays weekend matches, parties till Wednesday and cleanses himself on time to get into another match the next weekend.

Kapadia’s attempt to tease out the conflict between the two personalities – Diego and Maradona – yields some interesting results. These insights are filled in by important characters present in Maradona’s life at crucial points. “Diego was a kid with a lot of insecurities but Maradona was a character he had to invent for the football business,” says his personal trainer Fernando Signorini.

Another theme that Kapadia seems a bit reluctant to tease out is the class divides that eventually cleaves Maradona’s relationship with the Napoli team he played in and with Italy itself. The relationship soured permanently when Maradona played for his home team Argentina against Italy and won the semi-finals of the 1990 FIFA world cup in Rome. Suddenly, Maradona is cast as an outsider, tabloids paint him as a thankless traitor who worked against his host country to win a crucial game.

On his personal side, under such unfavourable conditions, he loses grip on his drug use, gets wiretapped and ends up on an Italian court for illegal drug possession and prostitution charges. Finally, dejected, he is forced to leave the country, a prospect he has been expecting for long, yet wanted to do on better terms. “When I arrived in Italy, I had 85,000 people to welcome me. When I left, I left alone,” he says.

While there may be no better rags-to-riches story than Maradona’s – the film is peppered with snippets of Maradona’s slum life as a kid and his parents – but his football legacy has long overshadowed the other parts of his life. He resolutely refused to acknowledge the paternity of his son born in Italy till 2016. But each frame quivers with the magnetism of the man who was once compared to God and his game that often made his opponents feel insignificant.

Maradona absolves himself from the infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal in the 1986 world cup quarter-final match against England in Mexico: “I know I handled the ball, but it wasn’t on purpose,” he says faintly. “A little cheating with a lot of genius.”

The film is punctuated by an electrifying tempo that delivers the thrills of watching a football match. There are no earth-shattering insights on offer into the football legend’s god like personality but the candid footages – arranged by Maradona’s manager with thoughtful foresight to record his life – are worth every scene. For all its accomplishments, one comes away with a feeling that the film deliberately obscures a significant part of Maradona’s life.

For example, nothing about Maradona’s left-leaning political affiliations (or his notorious friendship with the Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro) after he returns to his country, is discussed. For this reason, even as a comprehensive work on Maradona’s life Kapadia attempts it to be, the film feels less than well-rounded. It may have been that Maradona rejected the idea to include those portions but by willingly unheeding certain important aspects of his subject’s life, Kapadia makes the viewer question the objectivity of his work, which is also a partial disservice.