Asif Kapadia’s Diego Maradona – Reviewed

Following up success with Senna (2010) and Amy (2015), for his latest film director Asif Kapadia turns his attention to the destructive genius of Diego Armando Maradona. Mike Pinnington reviews…

In grainy footage, we follow small, fast cars urgently and precariously wending their way through narrow Italian streets, braking sharply here and there. This is an Italian Job of sorts, though these cars aren’t Minis, and the treasure they carry isn’t the ill-gotten gains of a bank job – their cargo is much more precious than that, worth more than its weight in gold. It is July, 1984, and these are the thrilling real-life opening scenes of Asif Kapadia’s latest film, Diego Maradona. Our protagonist has just arrived in Naples and is being hastily whisked to a press conference on the occasion of his signing for Napoli for a then world record fee of £6.9 million.

It’s the cacophonous beginning of a fairytale that would eventually stray into soap-opera, thriller and, ultimately, tragedy. Kapadia wisely plays the cards dealt to him and structures his latest character study with a strict, beginning, middle and end narrative. We get a bit of back-story: dogged by disappointment and injury during his brief stay in Barcelona, Maradona (born into a poor family in Argentina) arrives in a Naples, Southern Italy, to play for a club at that time in the doldrums. Such is their situation that that season’s goal was simply to maintain a place in Italian Football’s top-flight. We also learn that this is a city and club mired in rumour and suspicion relating to the Camorra – the Mob. Of this we can be in no doubt when a member of the press, having asked a direct question about these murky links, is swiftly ejected from proceedings by a faux-mortified club president. It isn’t the last we hear on the subject, just the tip of the iceberg.

“On the field, he is indomitable” 

Initially, things aren’t much better on the pitch. Maradona’s game isn’t a natural fit for the cynical and cagey Italian style of play – even worse, his club and its fans are the butt of every insult under the sun from rich and perennially successful northern giants, such as Milan and Juventus. That first season, stuttering flashes of brilliance from their new number 10 and defiance notwithstanding, Napoli can only muster a modest eighth-place finish. But Maradona adapts. His genius and will to win combine to see the club steadily cement themselves as challengers and, eventually, miracles happen. They win the league, twice – in 1986–87 (following an unlikely World Cup win in 1986 for Argentina, inspired by, who else, but Maradona) and 1989–90. On the field, he is indomitable. The story unfolding off the pitch threatens everything, however. Here, Kapadia’s judicious use of archive footage and access to key figures pays rich dividends.

Courted by the local mafia, to whom he becomes increasingly indebted, we see Maradona’s cocaine usage spiral out of control. Coming home high, he confesses that he locks himself in the bathroom for fear of what he might be capable of around his young family. Partying from match day well into the week, he spends the rest of his time getting clean and ready for the next game. Tellingly, he confesses: “When you’re on the pitch, life goes away. Problems go away.” This on- and off-pitch dichotomy isn’t the only intriguing binary in play. Another concerns the strange case of Diego and Maradona, as told by his personal trainer, Fernando Signorini: “With Diego I would go to the end of the world. But with Maradona, I wouldn’t take a step.”

“A perfect storm of ego, drugs, naivete and circumstance conspire to bring about the fall of the king” 

Signorini explains that Diego is a good, affectionate kid, rescued from the Buenos Aires slums by football. The problem was Maradona, the persona he used as a means to cope with the pressures of taking care of his family, and of almost single-handedly dragging Argentina and Napoli to unlikely successes. Without Maradona, Diego wouldn’t be here, he says. Initially, the gulf between the two is stark; but, like a real-life Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde, the lines become blurred, and ultimately non-existent. “As a madman, no one can beat me,” gloats Maradona. And he’s right. Almost. Unfortunately, he proves time and again to be his own, brilliantly self defeating, worst enemy. Suffice to say, when things really begin to unravel, it happens quickly, as a perfect storm of ego, drugs, naivete and circumstance conspire to bring about the fall of the king in astonishing fashion.

The film ends almost as abruptly as his reign. In a short coda to his humiliating last days in Naples (he left the club in 1992 in ignominy, having failed a routine drugs test), we see a shuffling and sweating, almost unrecognisably fat Diego, making his way to a TV interview more than a decade later. There, broken and exposed, a crying and contrite middle-aged man issues a touching mea culpa. But this is 2007 – what of the intervening years? Surely there is a story to tell, here? And there was. While the highs (in some senses) weren’t as high, the rollercoaster certainly continued. When I put this to Kapadia, he replied: “Everything that followed Naples was a repeat of the cycle, but a diminished version… He arrives [at a new club] with lots of hope, does something amazing, it goes wrong.”

While this is indeed true, those of us with more than a passing interest in this man’s incredible story (like Kapadia, my own curiosity grew into fascination on reading Jimmy Burns’ excellent and insightful Maradona: The Hand of God), will remember well his dismissal from the 1994 World Cup after, yet again, failing a drugs test. The other story we miss is how the man fares without football in his life. But the advanced weight gain tells its own sorry tale, and to find too much fault here would be to verge on nitpicking. Tragedies aside, there is great pleasure. Watching Maradona glide past foes – unbeknownst to them, beaten before they even set foot on the field – as he inspires, bullies and cajoles the mere mortals he calls teammates to victory, is a sight to behold for football purists. Yet, this is a film for everybody, enthusiast or not, and one that gets almost painfully close to the nub of Diego Armando Maradona’s complexities, all those things that made him Rebel, Cheat, Hero and God.

Mike Pinnington   

Catch Diego Maradona director Asif Kapadia in conversation this evening at the ICA

Images and media: Diego Maradona trailer; main and home-page image – film still, Diego Maradona, dir. Asif Kapadia

Posted on 25/06/2019 by thedoublenegative