Produced and largely financed by FIFA, no one should’ve been surprised that “United Passions” would largely act as an electronic press kit for the very wealthy non-profit soccer organization. Certainly, Sepp Blatter‘s resignation, the ongoing investigations into fraud and various other criminal activities, and the increasing spotlight on the human rights violations in Qatar, where workers are literally being worked to death in slave labor conditions to build stadiums in time for the 2022 World Cup, put a much more pointed contrast between the fictions of the film, and the actual reality of FIFA’s operations. But the real surprise of “United Passions” is that had these recent scandals never come to light, FIFA’s hubris would’ve been just as gallingly obvious in this dramatically inert picture. After all, what else could one call a defensive, hagiographic, self-idolizing movie about the global rise of soccer told from the point of view of executives who never put one foot on the pitch?
From the very early stages, the drama, which follows FIFA under the reign of three different people—Jules Rimet (Gerard Depardieu), Joao Havelange (Sam Neill), and Sepp Blatter (Tim Roth)—co-writer and director Frédéric Auburtin presents a completely phoney, idealistic version of the soccer federation that is shockingly tone deaf at just how insincerely it plays out, especially in the context of recent events. “Being FIFA president means nothing. No good will come. No glory, no money,” says Robert Guerin (Serge Hazanavicius), one of the founders and first president of FIFA. And yet, just moments later in the film, the narrative has jumped, and the next leader Jules Rimet is already traveling the world, making himself known to press, and setting down the foundation for the group’s future glory. And as the running time goes on, this clash between the federation’s belief in their earnest, modest nobility and the mutation of FIFA into a sports behemoth grows even wider and more absurd. “The World Cups that we organize do more for world peace than any UN resolution,” declares Havelange, who later, in complete sincerity, declares himself a God who can inspire the lowly masses suffering under political or economic hardship by bringing them the presence of soccer stars. And you won’t be shocked to learn this self-congratulation parade reaches a peak as the movie chronicles the Blatter years.
“He’s apparently good at finding money,” is one of the first lines of un-ironic dialogue used to describe Blatter, who is portrayed as a ballsy outsider to FIFA who can get the job done, as the organization gets mired in inaction, and threatens to collapse more than once thanks to mismanagement. The Blatter presented in this movie is one of tireless ambition, who has no other relationship except to his job, cares deeply about development in Africa, and is a wheeling dealing salesman who inks contracts with Adidas and Coca-Cola. And both of those brands also feature prominently in the movie, but in a manner that makes Michael Bay‘s exercises in product placement look subtle. Whether it’s Coca-Cola executives sitting in a bar drinking their own soda, or young African children running off the pitch after soccer practice in their new Adidas jerseys to have a drink from a nice cold bottle of Coca-Cola, it’s almost as if the marketing departments for those companies elbowed Auburtin out of the way to shoot those scenes themselves.
And these are the kinds of details you begin to notice in a movie as narratively empty as this. Devoid of any actual conflict or stakes, “United Passions” is 110 minutes of the federation trying to stay afloat, decade after decade, even as their offices get larger, and their wealth keeps growing. It’s hard to take any of their concerns seriously as FIFA members fly on private jets, or as Havelange saunters around his preposterously gorgeous South American apartment, complete with a pool and a stunning view of the ocean. But in this way, the door is opened, however marginally, for the drama to actually address concerns about fraud and financial malfeasance that has plagued FIFA for decades, but in case you forgot, they funded this movie themselves, and “United Passions” rolls into the last portion of the movie by giving Blatter a platform to defend himself. It’s almost as if he knew that one day legal troubles might be coming and decided a cinematic portrait would be his best option.
“I’m not responsible for what happened prior to my presidency,” Blatter lamely says as accusations begin to mount about what really went on during Havelange’s tenure, during which Sepp was promoted all the way to being his right hand man. “I’ve done nothing that merits defense,” he adds in what is supposed to a heroic stand to other FIFA members seeking to oust him. And viewers are led to believe that Blatter is a man whose every action has been dedicated to bettering football, with his career devoted to nothing else but bringing the beautiful game to everyone, everywhere. And this is underscored by a baffling framing device that has the movie cut every so often to a group of multi-ethnic children, including a single girl, playing a pick up game in a dirt patch as adult bystanders look on approvingly. We’re supposed to equate FIFA’s corporate pursuits to enabling even the smallest person with the most modest of means, the motivation to play soccer.
While the intent of “United Passions” is clear, it’s nearly insulting that anybody involved would think this might work either creatively or as a marketing tool given how crudely executed it is on both fronts. As a piece of cinema, it’s a syrupy (no thanks to Jean-Pascal Beintus‘ drippy score) non-event that leans heavily on montages and swelling music to try and drum up any pulse, while clearly directed so as not to insult the backers of the movie. As marketing, FIFA should actually be concerned that no one in the group seems to truly understand their actual public perception or take it seriously. But perhaps these are the problems you inevitably face when trying to turn what should be press release statements into dramatic form. Earning the opposite of its intended effect, “United Passions” makes you believe we have yet to witness the true depths of FIFA’s ego and arrogance. [F]