You expect the director of a biographical documentary to have a passion for whoever he’s making a movie about. But the British filmmaker Asif Kapadia spins right past passion and into obsession. He doesn’t just chronicle a personality — he does an immersive meditation on it. Kapadia plunges into the raw stuff of journalism: news footage, home video, and other “objective” media. It’s not that he doesn’t shape the material; Kapadia’s films are richly, brilliantly edited. But by eschewing many of the standard tools of documentary filmmaking, Kapadia creates an unusually direct communion between the audience and the subject, taking existential deep dives into the lives of people like the singer Amy Winehouse, the motor-racing champion Ayrton Senna, and, in his new film, the Argentine football legend of the 1980s, Diego Maradona.
One of the messages of Kapadia’s films is that there’s no one on earth like any of these people. Each one broke the mold — and, in two out of three cases (Winehouse and Senna), died in the process. Kapadia’s films are obsessive portraits of obsession, and when his method totally connects, as it did in “Amy,” the results can be masterful.
“Diego Maradona” isn’t a movie on that level. It’s a heady, engrossing, indulgently sprawling profile of a modern athlete in all his glory and contradiction, but it’s also a film that leaves you with more questions than it should. Kapadia constructed it out of 500 hours of never-before-seen footage taken from Maradona’s personal archive, and his method of hewing to that footage, weaving it into an epic video tapestry, gives the film a rare purity and immediacy. But there are moments when you hunger for the kind of information that a more classical approach would have yielded.
It’s telling that “Amy” (2015), Kapadia’s greatest film, which took the Oscar for best documentary, is also the most conventional, with talking-head interviews that do more than chronicle Amy Winehouse’s life; they interpret it. But Kapadia, in that case, was working with a highly idiosyncratic untold story — that of a singer whose cat-eyed junkie-wastrel image and spectacularly horrifying self-destructive spiral wound up blotting out her majesty as an artist. “Amy,” in unearthing the complex and even heroic singer behind the punk beehive persona, wound up being the rare portrait of a pop star that felt as fresh as its subject was famous.
In “Diego Maradona,” Kapadia returns to the mode he pioneered in “Senna” (2010), with interview subjects who are heard on the soundtrack but remain unseen, so that nothing interrupts the flow of the images. Kapadia wants to take you closer to his subjects than other documentaries do, and part of his technique is (ironically) to revel in the surface of whatever he’s showing us. But “Diego Maradona” is the first film of his that left me wishing he’d excavated more. The story he unfurls is tantalizing in its mesh of triumph and loss, ecstasy and ambiguity, and it holds us. But the treatment could have used more shape.
Many believe that Diego Maradona is the greatest football player who ever lived (his only rival for that accolade would be Pelé), and in clip after clip of “Diego Maradona” we experience the roughhewn magic he possessed as an athlete. He wasn’t tall (only 5’5″), and one observer says that his virtuosity came more from the brain than the body. Watching the movie, we see what that means: He had extraordinary physical skill, but a typical Maradona blitz had him dribbling the ball past several opponents with a force of speed that seemed to come from a supreme mental command of time and space, as if he were turning the soccer field into a video game. He knew not only where he was but where he was going to be in three seconds, and four seconds after that. He transfused the desire for victory into a spin-on-a-dime dexterity.
Maradona was a shaggy, sexy, long-dark-curly-haired rock star of football who looked like a muscled-up John Hall, and emotionally he had a reverence for what he was doing that was part of the magic. After scoring a goal, he lifts his fists and face to the heavens, as if thanking God for having the grace to work through him. At those moments, is he being modest or messianic? A bit of both. This is the sort of emotion we see in American athletes after the clinching play of the World Series, but Maradona’s everyday outpouring of champion bliss, which makes the typical end-zone dance look like a corporate display of exuberance, is part of the power of a sport that, in many regions of the world, is a religion.
The grand theme of “Diego Maradona” is that Maradona, through football, became not just a superstar but a god — and that the sport’s primeval underpinnings exalted him, and then did him in. For what happens when a god, in soccer, turns into a fallen god? The horde is not kind. The other theme of the movie — though it’s there more in spirit than exploration — is that football, as it exists today, is a sport of tribes, but the flux of global capitalism has served to rip tribe members away from their homes.
In America, we’ve grown accustomed to the point of numbness to the loss of locality in sports. In the late ’60s, the Detroit Tigers, the team I grew up rooting for, still had more than their share of homegrown players. Locality was part of the mystique of sports. Otherwise, what does it mean to root for the team in your city?
In “Diego Maradona,” the football teams are intensely local and ardently national. Yet a player like Maradona is an international firecracker who gets tossed into the middle of all that. We get a glimpse of his roots in Villa Fiorito, a shantytown on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, where football became the way he led himself and his family (he was the third of five children) out of poverty. But the movie mostly spins past his early years: how he got into football as a teenager, or even his first gig as a superstar globe-trotter when he signed with the Barcelona team for a then-record fee of $7.6 million.
The heart of the film is what happens after that, when he goes from Barcelona to Naples, for a record $10.1 million. He is already the world’s reigning football star, and the Naples team is, more or less, the worst in Italy. It’s a little like the moment in 1969 when O.J. Simpson was drafted by the Buffalo Bills; I still remember a TV interview Simpson did at the time, where you could hear the depression in his voice at the cruel irony of the fact that his virtuosity made him the inevitable pick for worst team in the league (which had the privilege of first draft pick). But in Maradona’s case, he chose to go, with the idea that he would redeem the Napoli team, and they would redeem him.
The movie barely touches on the chaotic brawl that Maradona was involved in — and, in fact, spearheaded — in Barcelona at the 1984 Copa del Rey final, which half of Spain saw spiral out of control on live television. Is it that Kapadia wanted to downplay the image of a violent, hotheaded Maradona? As a result, the movie never makes it entirely clear why he went to Naples, but it does sketch in the tumultuous culture of the place — the Camorra boss who ran the town and formed an alliance with Maradona (was Mardona coerced? That’s another issue we aren’t clear on), and the fact that Naples had come to be viewed by many Italians as the armpit of Italy. Italy, the film suggests, believed in soccer as much as it did life itself, and when Maradona finally led the Napoli team to its national victory, in 1987, he was seen as a kind of savior. The entire city was lifting its hands to the heavens. (The street celebration lasted for two months.)
Since Maradona isn’t just an athlete-wizard but a warmly charismatic figure, we’re curious to discover the tragic flaw that brought this man down. But the “flaw” is more like a succession of scandals, some fair and some unfair, that don’t necessarily bespeak any underlying hand of fate. He had a child out of wedlock (the Italian tabloids went wild), which he greeted with the strategy of deny, deny, deny. He became a serious cocaine addict — a self-driven form of descent, obviously, but not one that the movie explores with any of the wrenching personal cataclysm that marked the addiction odyssey of “Amy.”
And then there’s the bizarre national/international football conundrum. Each time Diego Maradona played in the World Cup, it was on the Argentine team, because the rules stipulate that World Cup teams must be nationally based. When the Argentine team faced off against the Italian team, in a match played in the stadium in Naples, the Italians — especially the Napoli crowd — reacted as if their star player had turned into the Antichrist. That was the kickoff to his grand fall.
But none of this, as the movie presents it, made total sense to me. The whole issue of Maradona playing for the Argentine team in the World Cup, even as he’s become the savior of Naples football, calls forth issues of nationality, identity, ethnic loyalty, and 20th-century global evolution that the film needed to explore. Forget, for a moment, the Italians: What did it mean to Maradona to be oscillating between Italy and Argentina, his expatriate teamland and homeland? “Diego Maradona” wants to be a kind of high-flying, reach-for-the-stars tragedy, like “Amy” or “Senna,” but it leaves out too much. No matter how many newsreels it shows us or how arresting they are, all that grainy reality can’t add up to revealing what’s inside the man at its center.