Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. HBO releases the film on Friday, September 20.
The five-minute opening montage of “Diego Maradona” recounts a dizzying history of the Argentine soccer player’s dramatic rise, and the story’s just getting started. As Barcelona’s breakout talent in the early ‘80s, Maradona was seen as a natural successor to Pelé’s stature as the greatest player in history, with ethos to boot: “I’m more interest in glory than money,” he says in one passing interview, as the prologue careens through his exuberant hard-partying lifestyle, local backlash, and a recovery from injury — until at long last he’s sold to less glamorous Napoli in 1984. It’s a dramatic shift, but only a starting point for this breathless and gripping saga of a soccer legend’s fall from grace.
While Maradona’s controversial “Hand of God” triumph in the 1986 World Cup has already been captured in an ESPN “30 for 30” installment, director Asif Kapadia folds that major chapter into a much wider tapestry. You couldn’t ask for a better match between filmmaker and subject, as the Oscar-winning director of “Senna” and “Amy” has already proven his bonafides when it comes to capturing ill-fated pop culture figures in intimate terms. As with “Amy,” the decade-spanning “Diego Maradona” eschews talking heads for a pure archival narrative, blending media coverage with reams of home video material to transform Maradona’s story into a grand opus. Aided by revealing voiceover narration from its subjects, the grainy ‘80s videos become a remarkable portal to the past.
Kapadia realizes that while soccer buffs may know about the key moments in Maradona’s career — his World Cup victory, his elevation to sainthood in Naples, and an eventual drug-fueled collapse — the dramatic arc wouldn’t work if the final chapter were taken for granted. Instead, the movie follows Maradona from his bumpy start in Naples through his second wave of confidence as if assembling the “Rocky” of soccer movies. That is, at least until it turns into the “Scarface” of soccer movies in its devastating final act.
“Diego Maradona” also provides a substantial window into Maradona’s bonafide talents. “The genius of world football,” as one ecstatic announcer calls him, zips down the field with such dexterity that opposing players melt away as he bolts past them, somehow dividing his focus between dribbling and passing without missing a beat. (The game footage, contextualized in voiceover by Maradona and others, recalls Spike Lee’s under-appreciated Kobe Bryant tribute “Kobe Doin’ Work.)
But the movie only observes athleticism as a starting point for deeper concerns. Maradona’s intense performance on the field, surrounded by the mania of screaming fans, unfolds against the backdrop of the emotional stakes that drove him to the top in the first place — his impoverished childhood in Buenos Aires, and a desire to support his family at all costs, catapult him into such a hectic pileup of competitiveness and unfiltered hubris that he eventually transforms into a modern-day Icarus on a preordained flight to the sun.
As for the ’86 win, which Maradona accomplished in part by ushering a ball into the goal with his hands (modern-day replays confirm the charge), the accomplishment speaks to the level of determination driving Maradona’s desire for success at all costs. The win, says one sports expert, qualifies as “a little bit of cheating and a lot of genius,” which epitomizes Maradona’s legacy as a whole.
Early stories of Maradona’s associations with the Guiliano crime family foreshadow the hurdles to come, but Kapadia doesn’t fixate on a single problem because so many of them accrue with time. The trouble really starts with tabloid mania over Maradona’s extramarital affair, which produced a child for whom he denied responsibility for over 30 years, and the impact on Maradona’s devout wife, Claudia Villafañel, who watches the story break while pregnant with a child of her own.
Then comes Maradona’s decision to captain Argentina’s team in the 1990 World Cup, calling for Naples to support them and driving a wedge between the city and Italy as a whole. Maradona openly talks about his desire to get traded (“I was Maradona’s jailer,” the team president acknowledges in a contemporary interview) and his capacity to empower Naples against the discrimination from the rest of the country gives way to greater skepticism. By the time an elaborate wiretapping operation ushers the end of his athletic career with a major drug bust, it comes as no surprise that Italy was ready to see him go down.
At times, the movie dashes through so many developments that its pace can be overwhelming, and even at two-plus hours, some major details get shortchanged. But the archival material retains a hypnotic quality, particularly when it comes down to the nuances of Maradona himself. Through it all, his face tells the story more than any of his later insights. At one point, at a pivotal downturn in his story, Kapadia includes footage of Maradona at the Naples team’s annual Christmas party as the soundtrack fades to silence. We’re left gazing at the player’s sad, distant gaze, as if witnessing the very moment he realizes the end is near.
An Italian historian summarizes Maradona’s story as “tremendous and terrible,” but nothing in the movie hits as hard as the revelation of his final state: Overweight, in the throes of addiction, and reduced to a teary-eyed pariah as he slogs his way through a televised confession. Maradona lives on and continues to grapple with his troubled past. But Kapadia doesn’t force the movie to cover every fine detail when the saga has a natural end point. Early on, a Naples local regards Maradona’s unassailable stature by saying that “you can’t criticize god.” By its end, the documentary has shown what it takes for a deity to come crashing down to Earth.
“Diego Maradona” premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. HBO will release it in the U.S. later this year.