Sound design is crucial to the success of Asif Kapadia’s Diego Maradona. Every thunk, thud and crunch on the pitch resounds – the rapid, superficial nature of observing a football match from the stands or through the TV screen is subverted and given weight in the echoes and distortions that come with impact.
It allows Kapadia to narrow in on his protagonist, making this unknowable enigma – a magnetic, yet distant legend of the game – into a tactile and vulnerable human being who puts his body on the line to express his gift. Maradona’s appeal has long been supported by his unknowability, the elusive changeability of the character he played on the world stage.
To pin down a figure whose sweep and impact is broad and lasting, Kapadia had to focus in and he does so with gusto. As the emphatic sound design adds subjectivity to Maradona’s experience on the pitch, Kapadia more often opts for choppy found footage and close-ups taken from the games over the objective wide shots favoured by television coverage. It grounds the feature in Maradona himself so Kapadia can feasibly tackle his story.
Rather than attempting to capture the entirety of Maradona’s expansive legacy, Kapadia chooses to retell the distinct and significant story of the Argentinian prodigy’s time at the then-failing SSC Napoli, spanning from 1984 to 1991. Taking in six seasons, two World Cups, a lovechild scandal, cocaine addiction and mafia entanglements, there is plenty to chew on across the doc’s two-and-a-bit-hour runtime and Kapadia rattles through it at pace. It’s blockbuster filmmaking, using salacious, dramatic talking heads, propulsive synthy beat-driven music and frenetic editing to push through this epic story of idolatry and tragedy.
At the centre of a sprawling cast of managers, trainers, girlfriends and crime bosses is Maradona himself, who coyly lends a couple of soundbites in a bid to maintain his mystique. Kapadia leans on a hypothesis that his subject is split in two – the private, loving ‘Diego’ and the egregious, showboating ‘Maradona’, though Maradona himself rejects this premise entirely. It’s this dichotomy that gives the film its arc, though and coheres its conflicting reports.
Exciting contextualisation keeps Maradona in the context of the world around him, with the Falklands War framing the 1986 England/Argentina face-off in the World Cup while anti-Naples prejudice forms a harsh backdrop to his relationship with Italy. Some threads don’t cohere as well as they might – Maradona’s refusal to admit paternity for Diego Sinagra, the child of an extramarital affair, until 2016 is brought up and dealt with superficially but framed as significant.
Ultimately, Diego Maradona is about the corrupting influence of exceptionalism – swept into the game and made financially responsible for his family at 15, the arrested development Maradona suffers is writ large and ultimately leads to his downfall. To translate the nuance and damage of this into compulsive, entertaining viewing is a feat worthy of the mysterious man himself.
Sheffield Doc/Fest takes place from 6-11 June. To see the full programme and to buy tickets visit sheffdocfest.com.
Rhys Handley | @RhysHandley2113