The idea of Serbian-Bosnian helmer Emir Kusturica making a docu about the legendary Argentine soccer ace Diego Maradona might seem like an odd match.

The idea of Serbian-Bosnian helmer Emir Kusturica making a docu about the legendary Argentine soccer ace Diego Maradona might seem like an odd match at first, but result, “Maradona by Kusturica,” works surprisingly well. Snarky detractors might muse that both men, monumental egotists on the evidence here alone, demonstrated spectacular ability in their early careers only to eventually disappoint. More generous souls will find in this an original perspective brought to bear on a complex figure with a fascinatingly chequered career. Either way, pic should score mucho B.O. and ancillary goals in football-loving territories, especially in Latin America.

Attendees at this year’s Cannes film festival won’t be able to resist drawing comparisons with another troubled but gifted sporting figure, Mike Tyson, profiled in James Toback’s “Tyson.” Like the American boxer, Diego Maradona (born 1960) grew up in the slums. By dint of innate talent and hard graft, he rose to become one of his sport’s leading players at a tender age, winning (as team captain) the Youth World Cup for Argentina by the age of 19. (Tyson was 20 when he won his first heavyweight title.) Like Tyson, Maradona reached the top of his game, only to undermine his reputation on the field (Tyson’s chomping on Evander Holyfield’s ear parallels Maradona’s infamous handball, the so-called “Hand of God,” in the quarter-finals of the 1986 World Cup). And like Iron Mike, a slide into drug abuse ravaged his sporting skills and disqualified him from play several times. The only parallel missing is a rape charge and a stint in jail, although, by a weird coincidence, both men have Che Guevara’s face tattooed on their bodies.

In approach, however, “Tyson” and “Maradona by Kusturica” differ enormously. The bulk of “Tyson” is made up of an interview, and helmer Toback is never onscreen. Kusturica, however, very much a rangy, visible presence in his pic, films Maradona in a variety of settings (at the footballer’s home, in nightclubs where he sings songs about himself, playing football with the helmer in Belgrade and so on). At one point, Kusturica laments that he feels like a paparazzo, stalking a public figure with impertinent questions in the very manner which he hates when on the receiving end himself.

Archive footage is used to dutifully sketch in the highlights of Maradona’s career, albeit in less detail than some other soccer docs (for instance, “Pele Forever”). It’s assumed that auds will be already know why the footballer’s skills are so revered. Periodic montages of astonishing goals are left to speak for themselves.

Instead, more intriguingly, Kusturica explores how Maradona adulation carries a political dimension, with his “Hand of God” goal against England viewed by many, particularly Argentinians, as revenge for the Falklands War, and by extension a small victory for the developing world against First World domination. Maradona himself admits he deliberately touched that ball, but is unrepentant. Indeed, he rather gleefully compares the act to “pickpocketing an Englishman’s wallet.”

A frank Maradona, who discusses how cocaine nearly ruined and almost ended his life, also makes no secret of his leftist sympathies, his support of Fidel Castro and contempt for U.S. imperialism and George Bush in particular. Footage unspools of him taking the podium at a left-wing rally, whose specific cause is never quite explained onscreen, a somewhat annoying vagueness that’s of a piece with Maradona’s own heartfelt but not terribly rigorous political views.

Kusturica’s voiceover sometimes irritates in a different way, preeningly name dropping references to Jorge Luis Borges, Freud and Jung that seem off the mark, while elsewhere he draws awkward parallels between Maradona’s life and situations in helmer’s own films, using illustrative clips. Pic’s title alone, putting subject and director on an even footing, suggests scale of helmer’s self-regard.

All the same, there’s a lot of fun to be had here in docu’s abundant musical interludes, and its investigation of the nuttier corners of the Maradona cult, not least the eccentric Church of Maradona, members of which are seen holding masses and a wedding on a football pitch. Violent, silly animated cartoons of Maradonna attacking, with foot and ball, Margaret Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles, Tony Blair (gee, these guys really do hate the Brits), Ronald Reagan and George Bush also add a few crude humor guffaws, and might have been even funnier if the backing music weren’t the Sex Pistols “God Save the Queen” every single time.

Maradona by Kusturica

Spain-France

Production

A Pentagrama Films, Telecinco Cinema (Spain), Wild Bunch, Fidelite (France) production. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Jose Ibanez. Co-producers, Belen Atienza, Alvaro Augustin, Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonnier, Gael Nouaille, Vincent Maraval. Directed, written by Emir Kusturica.

Crew

Camera (color, B&W, video-to-35mm, digital-to-35mm), Rodrigo Pulpeiro Vega; editor, Svetolik Zajc; music, Stribor Kusturica; sound (Dolby Digital) Raul Martinez Avila; animation director, Edgar Simkin. Reviewed at the Cannes Film Festival (out of competition), May 20, 2008. Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Diego Maradona (English, Spanish dialogue)

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