Star gazing

A new Maradona documentary flatters to deceive. Terry Staunton explains his disappointment

As a minister leads his congregation in a revised football-friendly rendition of the Lord’s Prayer before performing a wedding on the pitch of an Argentine stadium, it’s clear we’ve dropped in on no ordinary place of worship. This is the Church Of Maradona, just as surreal as anything in Sarajevo filmmaker Emir Kusturica’s back pages, but it’s tiny moment of light relief in a disappointing movie.

Twice winner of the Palme D’Or at Cannes, for When Father Was Away On Business and Underground, Kusturica foregoes his usual layered idiosyncratic dramas for a fairly standard celebrity documentary with Maradona by Kusturica, released in mainland Europe last year but only now making its straight-to-DVD UK bow. The director clearly loves Diego, his fawning camera trailing him through his homeland and Italy, boosting the legend and brilliance of his subject along the way.

Maradona’s genius is a given, and it’s borne out with reams of archive footage of breathtaking action, not least what the onscreen caption refers to as “the goal of the century”: Diego’s second strike against England in the 1986 World Cup is shown a total of six times, each punctuated with clumsy animation of the footballer dribbling past the likes of a decapitated Margaret Thatcher or a cowboy Ronald Reagan to the soundtrack of the Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen. Football, you see, is “the only way small nations triumph ethically over major powers”. OK…

Kusturica goes to great lengths to show Maradona as a man of the people, breaking bread with Fidel Castro and revisiting his humble Buenos Aires roots. Little mention is made, however, of this hero of the poverty-stricken blowing huge chunks of his salary on cocaine, consorting with the Neapolitan mafia, or any of the marital indiscretions that would taint the player’s standing as a role model.

Instead, the director allows his subject to ramble on at length about radical Latin American politics and his role as an anti-imperialist figurehead. The goals against England were sweet revenge for the Falklands War, says Maradona, and his later fall from grace the culmination of a FIFA plot to discredit a dangerous subversive. Former FIFA president João Havelange “is the arms dealer and Sepp Blatter sells the bullets” he claims in one especially bonkers interview.

While never trying to keep his idol’s ego in check, Kusturica still manages to inflate his own at every turn. The opening scene sees him playing guitar in a rock band, introduced on stage as “the Maradona of cinema”. And whereas other documentarians might be tempted to draw parallels between the player and other iconic figures from history, literature or movies, Kusturica assesses him only in terms of characters from his own films. Rarely have two maniacally self-important men shared a screen.

Maradona is a potentially fascinating documentary subject, a sportsman with a following arguably as widespread and devoted as Muhammad Ali’s – although on this showing he lacks even an ounce of the boxer’s charisma. But Kusturica wastes the formidable access he was granted (filming took place over a two-year period), unable to remove the rose-tinted goggles of a cloying fan. Time and again, the footballer feints and nutmegs anything approaching an awkward topic and all the director can do is beam in wonder.

From WSC 272 October 2009