Diego Maradona, Asif Kapadia’s take on the poor boy from the slums of Buenos Aires who became a footballing god, is gripping if heartbreaking. It’s one of those scenarios where a stunning natural talent is exploited rather than protected. He even put me in mind of Judy Garland (minus the large and devoted gay following). But for all that, it is not wholly satisfying and it sent me scurrying to Wikipedia. What happened to his marriage? What were his ties with the mafia exactly? Plus, from what I read there, was he also a bit of a shit?
Kapadia is an exceptional documentarian and, as with his previous films, Senna and Amy, he does not employ talking heads or any of that. Instead, it’s archive footage or television snippets or personal videos all shaped to tell a story while the interviewees are kept off camera, with only their voices heard. On this occasion he had 2,000 hours of footage that had to be whittled down to two hours, so it’s understandable that elements are missing. But you do feel the lack.
The film skips quickly over Maradona’s shantytown boyhood (I wanted a lot more on that) and focuses almost exclusively on his career peak at Napoli in the 1980s. It opens in Naples, on the day of his signing, and it is exciting. The city is cock-a-hoop and the press conference is a near riot. At this point, he can’t put a foot wrong, metaphorically or literally. I have zero interest in football — please don’t start moving the condiments around to explain the offside rule, I’ll only glaze over — but even I could see, from the clips, that his on-pitch abilities were dazzling. Napoli was ailing badly and he turned the club round singlehandedly. When he led them to their first ever national championship victory, the city celebrated with a street party. That lasted two months. He was their adored saviour, a god. And he was hot. And sexy. I noted this for myself.
So what brought him down? A cocaine addiction for one, as abetted by the Camorra, although which came first is never clear. The narrative is at its most Judy when his personal trainer says that, along with Maradona’s wife, Claudia (who had been his teenage sweetheart), he begged the club to allow him to enter rehab. But the club couldn’t afford to lose him. (Napoli was Maradona’s MGM, if you like.) It also didn’t help that he played for Argentina against Italy in Naples at the World Cup, and scored the winning penalty. The city turned against him viciously after that. They had worshipped him, and he had humiliated them. The backlash was brutal.
So there’s that, and it’s well told, but the narrative suffers because it fails to offer much psychological insight. For instance, you understood why Amy (Winehouse) was driven to drugs, but with Maradona this is never explored. And questions that should have been asked aren’t. He denied paternity of an extramarital child that was definitely his, and I wanted to know what Claudia — the two were married for 20 years before divorcing, I now know — felt about that, but nothing’s said. And isn’t that a shitty way to treat women, regardless? In short, this is gripping and heartbreaking as far as it goes, but it doesn’t quite go far enough.