Who’s that amazingly expressive actor they got to play Diego Maradona? The one you can’t take your eyes off of, whose every facial muscle can project joy, pain, sadness, humor or anger from miles away, and sometimes all at once?
Oh wait — this is a documentary, and this is Maradona himself, one of the most colorful and fascinating personalities in all of sports, with a life story bordering on the mythic. You may know the outlines of the soccer legend’s life, but there’s no way you won’t learn something from “Diego Maradona,” Asif Kapadia’s absorbing and exhaustive new film.
Most documentaries cut frequently to talking heads. Kapadia, who won an Oscar for “Amy,” about Amy Winehouse, doesn’t do that, preferring to keep the viewer firmly planted in the narrative he’s crafted from hundreds of hours of never-seen archival footage. The approach is hugely effective here because we don’t see the older, larger Maradona, now 58, until the very end.
Much of the footage Kapadia has unearthed here is nothing short of mesmerizing, both for highly dramatic moments like Maradona’s hero welcome in Naples, where he was to spend seven chaotic years, and quiet moments like the athlete simply sitting at a party and saying nothing, looking lost and miserable as the world starts to crumble around him.
Because the Naples years form the heart of his film, Kapadia spends only a few minutes on Maradona’s beginnings, from his birth in a Buenos Aires shantytown to his rise as a soccer prodigy who began supporting his family from age 15.
By the time Maradona arrives in Naples in 1984, he’s greeted as a messiah; the southern city is hungry to challenge the traditional soccer powerhouses further north. Some 75,000 adoring fans gather in the city’s stadium to welcome him.
A soccer genius celebrated as much for his brilliant instincts and vision on the pitch as his physical abilities, he turns Napoli into a winning team. He’s rewarded with a stardom that is hard to fathom. At one point, a commentator notes, virtually every Naples home has a photo of Maradona, “many on top of their bed, next to Jesus.”
At the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, with Maradona playing for Argentina, the duality of the man is defined in two famous quarterfinal goals against England: the infamous “Hand of God” goal (he later confessed to scoring with his hand) and minutes later one of the greatest goals in history, leading the ecstatic announcer to shout: “What planet did you come from?”
There is amazing celebratory footage here, in the locker room and then in Argentina, where he’s hailed as a savior. More glory is to come in Naples, where after a championship victory people celebrate for weeks, and a sign is erected at the cemetery for the corpses: “You don’t know what you missed.”
Things are soon to unravel. Maradona’s cocaine habit worsens, but as long as he is winning, his team bosses don’t seem to care. He is high half the week, then cleanses his system to play on Sunday.
Then comes the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Maradona and Argentina are forced not only to face the Italian team in its home country, but to play the semifinal match in Naples itself, Maradona’s home stadium.
It’s a prescription for disaster. He naively asks Neapolitans to support Argentina, and headlines interpret him as saying “Naples is Not Italy.” The Naples fans avidly support their own country and are devastated when Argentina wins, on penalty kicks.
Argentina will go on to lose the final, where Italian fans boo during the Argentine anthem, and he curses back. Maradona’s ties to Italy appear broken. He’s no longer a god, but, as one newspaper dubs him, a devil.
In 1991, Maradona receives a 14-month suspended sentence on cocaine possession charges in a plea-bargain agreement. He also gets a 15-month suspension from soccer after testing positive for cocaine.
We watch as the once-adored star leaves Naples in ignominy. In a gruff voice, Maradona recalls here for Kapadia how when he arrived, he’d been greeted by cheering throngs. “When I left,” he says, “I was all alone.”
Yet of all the voices in the film, perhaps it’s Maradona’s sister, Maria, who says it best, and simplest.
“It’s a heavy weight,” she says, “to be so famous.”
“Diego Maradona,” an HBO Sports release, is unrated by the Motion Picture Association of America. Running time: 130 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Follow Jocelyn Noveck on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/JocelynNoveckAP
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