Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi is one of the most talked about, and least talkative, human beings on the planet. So perhaps it’s appropriate that Alex de la Iglesia’s “Messi” features plenty of the former and only secondhand scraps of the latter. Part “This Is Your Life”-style symposium and part traditional documentary — with all-too-brief match clips and far-too-long dramatic re-enactments scattered throughout — the film will likely be a hot property across European and Latin American territories, though this overly busy, slippery work never comes close to cracking the quiet enigma at its center, nor assembling its pieces into a coherent whole.
Most of “Messi” takes place within a fairly common setting seen throughout Europe and South America: a restaurant full of people arguing about soccer. The difference here, however, is that every table is occupied by figures from Messi’s life. At one table sit Messi’s former grade-school teachers, at another his childhood friends. Old youth-squad teammates from Argentine club Newell’s Old Boys reminisce not far from Messi’s current FC Barcelona compatriots, Andres Iniesta, Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique. Head honchos from the Argentine national team have their corners, Spanish sportswriters bicker at another, and Johan Cruyff, perhaps the closest soccer has come to producing a Platonic philosopher-king, holds court from the center of the room.
It’s an impressive assembly of characters — though one that perhaps misses the most important perspectives, those of Messi himself, and his instrumental former coaches Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola — and placing them all in a room together with freely flowing wine seems an inspired strategy. Yet these guests never interact in particularly interesting ways, and to anyone who has paid more than passing attention to Messi’s career (which is to say, most of the world’s non-U.S. population), few of the stories relayed here will come as a surprise. By the time the dinner parties get around to lengthily debating Messi’s merits compared with those of Diego Maradona, Argentina’s version of Beatles vs. Stones, one starts to wonder when the waiter will bring the check.
Among the primary subjects covered: Messi’s boyhood in Rosario; his expensive hormone treatment for a growth deficiency and subsequent move to Barcelona’s La Masia youth academy in order to pay for it; and his sudden explosion into soccer’s most dominant individual player, winning an unprecedented four consecutive Ballon d’Or trophies, in addition to three Champions League titles, six Spanish championships and an Olympic gold medal, all before his 26th birthday.
Aside from the biographical highlights, there are some grace notes to be found. Grainy video footage of a young Messi acting as a snail in a school play — not to mention the preteen No. 10 dribbling past waves of opponents as nonchalantly as if he were taking his poodle out for a stroll — will surely delight fans, and occasionally his old schoolmates happen upon an unintentionally revealing quirk, such as his habit of turning off the communal PlayStation whenever he was losing.
What one never gets, however, is any sort of psychological insight into what drove this quiet, humble, diminutive man to such exceptional heights. Unlike the playful magic of Pele, the bulldog-like ruthlessness of Maradona, or the arrogant flair and physicality of Cristiano Ronaldo (his only real peer in the modern game), Messi often projects a curious blankness both on and off the pitch. Of his personal life, the film offers one oblique mention apiece to his recent tax problems and longtime relationship with hometown girl Antonella Roccuzzo. Cracks in his façade are even rarer than his missed shots. One journalist even complains, “When you interview Messi, it’s beyond boring. One cliche after another.”
Of course, as David Foster Wallace once observed, “The real secret behind top athletes’ genius may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as silence itself.” Messi’s inscrutability certainly presents no obstacle to appreciating his preternatural abilities with a football, but it does make him strangely unsatisfying as a documentary subject. It doesn’t help that de la Iglesia attempts to sidestep this issue in the clumsiest manner possible, presenting a clutch of dramatic re-enactments of the player’s childhood. Featuring four different actors (Alex Burgues, Marc Balaguer, Valentin Rodriguez and Juan Ignacio Martinez) in Messi’s role, these vignettes traffic in the worst kind of swoony, amber-hued hagiography, stopping the film in its tracks far too often.
Technically, the film is well shot and very briskly edited, at times to its detriment: Cuts between different groups of interviewees are sometimes too fast to keep track of the anecdotes, and clips of Messi’s signature goals — particularly his jaw-droppers against Zaragoza and Getafe — are busily assembled from so many different angles that they’re hard to fully appreciate.