Diego Maradona biopic a strikingly candid antidote to airbrushed world of modern football
“Peace,” says a young Diego Maradona when asked, five minutes into Asif Kapadia’s candid new film about the troubled Argentinian genius, what he is hoping for from his impending transfer from Barcelona to Napoli.
There is precious little of that in his seven tumultuous years in the fervent southern Italian city, which form the basis of this intimate biopic, but there is struggle, footballing brilliance, glory, hero-worship, excess and scandal in spades. More surprisingly given his later vilification, there is also a good deal of pathos.
Kapadia’s trump card is the reams of previously unseen home video footage documenting Maradona’s spell in Naples, where he dragged a team derided by bigger clubs as “peasants” to heights never scaled before or since – in between inspiring Argentina to an infamous World Cup triumph.
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We see him shy and contemplative at private gatherings, raucous in dressing rooms, affectionate at home with his newborn daughter, wary arriving at a heaving Stadio San Paolo where his signing by Napoli is to be announced and even, in one graphic scene, having surgery on a broken ankle.
We see the Maradona that we know: the extraordinarily gifted and gutsy footballer, who became the greatest player on the planet – and, to some, of all time – at the height of his mesmerising powers; and the charismatic rogue who developed a self-destructive taste for cocaine and womanising, fathering a lovechild who he refused to acknowledge for decades.
“I was in love with [childhood sweetheart and then-girlfriend] Claudia but I was no saint,” he says in the film, with some understatement. “And there were some very beautiful women.”
But we also see a Maradona that most do not know. The boy raised in Villa Fiorito, the poorest slum in Buenos Aires, who supported his parents and four siblings from the age of 15. The prodigious yet gauche youth who dreamed only of modest footballing success, far removed from the heights he would attain.
The dedicated athlete so desperate to succeed in Italy he hired a personal trainer and remodelled his game. The man bewildered by and slightly afraid of the suffocating level of adulation thrust on him in Naples, which included an inevitably ill-fated association with the Camorra, the local mafia.
The result is strikingly raw, and all the more so when compared with the airbrushed state of modern football, where social media posts are created by third parties, so-called behind-the-scenes documentaries on Netflix and Amazon are carefully crafted PR exercises, and the interviews and first-person articles that pass for authenticity have been exhaustively stage managed.
At one point in the film the trainer explains his client has a split personality: Diego, the kind, humble boy from the ghetto; and Maradona, the larger-than-life persona he created to cope with his success.
Where Kapadia, the Oscar-winning director behind biopics of other tragic geniuses Amy Winehouse and Ayrton Senna, succeeds is in showing us the humanity of Diego.
With the man himself now little more than a caricature of Maradona, this is a timely, fitting and illuminating reminder of one of sport’s singular talents.
DIEGO MARADONA is in cinemas nationwide from Friday 14 June.