Film

Separating the Man From the Myth of Diego Maradona

Asif Kapadia completes his trilogy of documentaries on fame with a portrait of the notorious footballer.

Poster for Diego Maradona (all images courtesy HBO)

Director Asif Kapadia completes his documentary trilogy on geniuses and fame with Diego Maradona, a frenetic portrait of the world’s most notorious footballer. Like its predecessors, Senna (2010) and Amy (2015), the film charts the rise and abrupt fall of a charismatic wunderkind with a tragic flaw, with audio-only interviews accompanying dramatically arranged and meticulously edited archival footage. This is a peculiar trio without the fact of their stardom, and even that makes for a precarious kinship. The hysteria which Diego Maradona commanded is very different from the fervor that devoured singer Amy Winehouse, and more different still from the haze of glory that enshrined Formula One racer Ayrton Senna. The distinctions between their respective celebrity statuses notwithstanding, Maradona’s tale marries the two most critical forces behind the other two leads in the trilogy. He possessed (at least at one point) the godlike status of Senna, which was exacerbated by the same relentless media attention that troubled Winehouse.

Senna narrowly emerges with the easiest task of the three films. The headstrong Brazilian driver, who died at age 34 in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, is not just effortlessly magnetic, but as a hero, uncomplicated to root for. If he must account for any foible, it’s his single-minded determination and pure love of the sport. The earliest shots of the film capture a young Senna as he starts his career in Europe. He is focused and thoughtful, tolerant — if not exactly at ease — in front of the camera. Above all, he’s a confident and tenacious competitor whose sheer force of presence suits the burden of the spotlight. As such, all the archive footage has a winningly observational quality. Fame operates here on a more latent level. Brazilian composer Antonio Pinto (who also scored Amy and Maradona) named the film’s main recurring theme “God,” a somber requiem with obvious double meaning. Senna was a devout Catholic, but it becomes clear that there was something holy about the man himself, his spiritual communion with the car and the stretch of road ahead.

From Diego Maradona

Amy seems like a perfunctory exercise in comparison, in large part because hers is a familiar tragedy. Kapadia’s melancholy tapestry of video footage and testimonials reckons rather conventionally with all that conspired to destroy the young singer and so many before her: toxic relationships, intense media scrutiny, mental illness, and addiction. Such a formal analysis yields no fresh revelations, but its artful construction of her descent delivers a persuasive sketch of fame’s cost. As paparazzi photos and footage increasingly eclipses the purer warmth of home videos, that intimacy turns lurid and invasive. Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that it’s the most successful of Kapadia’s films to date, complete with an Oscar win.

Maradona does not boast the same dexterity, but it’s the most ambitious effort of the trilogy. The Argentine footballer, now 58, has far outlived both Senna and Winehouse, and the scale of his legend does not lend itself as naturally to a straightforward trajectory. Kapadia’s sprawling account covers the player’s time at S.S.C. Napoli, and deftly conveys the poetic symbiosis between him and Naples. Initially, Maradona’s well-documented dynamism on and off the pitch endeared him to the public. This small, spirited dark-skinned man radiating pride and boundless passion came to embody the defiant soul of the city. He became their champion, an avatar of the poorer, racialized south come to silence the cruel rich north. In gratitude, they deified him. His image soon found its way onto walls and buildings around the city, cradled in religious iconography. But just as quickly, that same pride and passion turned him into one of the most despised players in the sport’s history. Maradona became an outrageously wealthy, fanatically loved athlete, but he was also ensnared by the mafia and cocaine addiction. He used up his goodwill on a litany of scandals, including having a child out of wedlock, until he committed what Naples perceived as the ultimate betrayal: leading Argentina’s team to victory over Italy in the 1990 FIFA World Cup.

From Diego Maradona

Maradona’s tale is one of mythical proportions, and the weight of it may have diminished the chance to excavate the man himself in just one take. He may well deserve his own trilogy. Kapadia designs for him a fittingly literary binary: the idea that there was “Diego,” the boy from the slums, and then “Maradona,” the unstoppable superstar. But even after more than two hours of footage, he remains an elusive figure. The film pointedly evades confronting some of his more egregious infractions — like the sexual assault accusations levied against him in 2017 — preferring instead to get at the complexity behind football fandom, shrouded in questions of nationalism and pious devotion. Diego Maradona incompletely captures the power of the story the man inspired and the fickle nature of mythmaking itself, even if the myth is all we are left with.

Diego Maradona opens in limited theatrical release September 20, and premieres on HBO October 1.

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