Like most of the Cannes Film Festival’s strong documentary selections, Asif Kapida’s “Diego Maradona” will premiere in a non-competitive slot Sunday night. It’s also one of the best documentaries of the year so far. Kapadia, who won an Oscar for the 2015 Cannes-premiering music biodoc “Amy,” will have a second shot at an Academy Award with a qualifying run before it shows on HBO September 24.
Working from formats ranging from 8 mm video, early newsreel shot on 16 mm, and U-matic video, Kapadia’s team stitched together an astonishing drama. Because he’s covering a longer life, “we play with time in a different way,” he said. “Let’s take you on a mad journey.”
Asif Kapadia at Cannes
Kapadia said Argentinian football icon Diego Maradona is far bigger than the subjects of his last two films. “He is more well known than [Ayrton] Senna and Amy [Winehouse] put together,” Kapadia told me at Cannes the day before his premiere. “Soccer is the biggest sport in the world and he’s up there, particularly for a younger generation. People in their 50s would say Diego Maradona is the best player in the world.”
After years of holding off other would-be documentaries of his life, Maradona granted Kapadia full access. Much like his editing feat on racing documentary “Senna,” Kapadia did three years of research with a team of about 10 archivists separated into Team Argentina and Team Italy, translating and cataloging more than 500 hours of never-before-seen footage from the legendary and controversial Argentine footballer’s personal archives.
Kapadia covered not only the brilliant athlete’s football mastery and competitive drive, but also the complexity of Maradona’s life. It falls into three sections: his youthful rise in Argentina, his move to Barcelona, and his extraordinary rise and fall over seven years in Naples. After Maradona arrived in Naples in 1984, commanding a world-record fee, the Argentine led Napoli to its first league title, with more to follow. He also played for Argentina for several World Cups, adding more layers of drama and turning his passionate Naples fans against him. Then came the downfall, with partying and drugs supplied by Naples’ Giuliani crime family.
Kapadia was a film student in 1998 when read a book about Maradona, and thought he’d make a dramatic subject for a fiction film. However, it wasn’t until 2012, after he made Formula 1 race car movie “Senna,” that producer Paul Martin called him about the prospect of gaining access to Maradona’s private footage. “I don’t think the timing is right to follow a Brazilian sporting hero with an Argentinian sporting hero,” said Kapadia.
The chance to acquire Maradona’s personal archives came back around, and that imprimatur opened doors to all available source material, from decades-old news footage to interviews with historians and journalists that documentary detective Kapadia uses for his seamless voiceover narration. “They’d be cutting in London,” he said. “I’d interview people, ‘Where’s that footage? Let’s look at it. Who should we talk to?'”
Interviewing Maradona himself was a lot harder. “I kept asking him about all these things,” said Kapadia. “Initially he tried to deflect, and I’d bring it back to the moment.”
“You got a nerve asking me these questions to my face,” Maradona told him. “But for that I respect you.”
Amazingly, one of Maradona’s early managers hired two cameramen to follow him wherever he went — including drug-fueled parties and bathrooms, where Maradona confronts his bleary eyes in a mirror.
The filmmaker doesn’t tell his editors in advance what his movies are about. He prefers to absorb everything and assemble, in this case, an initial five-hour cut (“this is a disaster!”), which they whittle down to four, three and two hours. “Maybe we’re getting better at it,” he said. “But Diego’s life is drama at every stage.”
As celebratory as it is a cautionary tale, the movie shows Maradona arrested in development as the teenager he was when he first broke out as a star athlete. “He’s a tough street kid,” said Kapadia. “He won’t walk away from any fight. If there isn’t a fight, he will start one. He needs an adversary, that’s his motivation. if anyone starts a fight, he has to win.”
Finally, this Maradona story combines an admiring portrait of an extraordinary athlete with an examination of the impact of the demands and pressures he felt. “He was charismatic and amazing and watchable with a brilliant smile,” said Kapadia. “He loves dancing, he’s a fun guy. You can imagine what it was like to be in his inner circle in those days. But if he turns on you, then you are out.”
Maradona starts out like “Senna” and winds up like “Amy.” “In a way, the film turns on him,” said Kapadia. “You had to deal with which version of him are you meeting. No one tells him what to do, no one ever could or does even now. That is Diego Maradona. It is all in him: He’s the good guy and the bad guy. He’s the rival with himself.”
HBO made sense as a way to get a movie with pre-sold rights around the world made available “to as many people as possible,” said Kapadia. “I wanted to be able to come here, have a theatrical experience around the world, go to Argentina and Italy.”
Maybe the movie will bring his fans around again.