Tocado por la mano de Dios

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During a rare interview session in a recording studio in Dubai, Asif Kapadia sat on the floor with a microphone trying to catch the clearest sound whilst his subject perched on a sofa above him. At one point he remembers zoning out, no longer listening to either the Argentine Spanish or the English translation, but instead staring, awestruck, at Diego Maradona’s left foot. He wanted to reach out and touch it, an urge, he said, unlike any he had felt before. He improvised a question, asking about the infamous tackle from Andoni Goikoetxea (dubbed the “butcher of Bilbao”) that nearly ended Maradona’s career in 1983 whilst playing for Barcelona. “Was it this foot?” he said, and reached for it. “What are you doing?!” said Diego, and pushed him away. Kapadia apologised and moved on. He shouldn’t have done it, he admitted, “but it felt good”. 

Asif Kapadia’s film about the man variously known as El Diego, El Pibe de Oro (The Golden Boy), or simply Dios (God), is the third in a trilogy of films about media spectacle and the complexity of genius – following portraits of Ayrton Senna and Amy Winehouse. 

It is cut from over 500 hours of material, including some never seen before footage retrieved with great difficulty from personal archives in Napoli and, quite literally, the boot of a car in Buenos Aires. The latter came in the form of disintegrating VHS tapes belonging to Claudia Villafañe, Diego’s first wife. They had divorced acrimoniously in 2004, in part because Diego had fathered a son with a young Neapolitan woman called Cristiana Sinagra in 1986. To his shame, Diego would not recognise him for the best part of two decades. 

For football fans, impressions of Maradona are likely time-stamped in the imagination between 1984-1992 when he lived and played in Napoli, the vibrant and volatile heart of Southern Italy. It was there that he achieved a kind of immortality, leading a struggling team from an unfashionable city to their first ever league title, and lifting the World Cup with his country at the age of just twenty five.  

It was also there that that he became addicted to cocaine and pizza, rubbed shoulders with the Camorra, and repeatedly abandoned his family in a spiral of bad choices and worse behaviour that would mark his life forever with sadness and regret equal to his sporting greatness. 

Kapadia conceives of this time as being central to the Maradona legend - and, in some ways, the sport of football - when moments of maximum joy necessarily ran parallel to irreversible decline, and very few people were fully in control. He presents a polyphonic but incomplete portrait of a man whose force of character and artistic brilliance produced an unbreakable bond with people all over the world – whilst simultaneously saying something of the essentially unknowable nature of people, the closeness of joy and sadness, and the enduring resonance of images.  

The film’s poster reads, “Rebel, Hero, Hustler, God” and could probably continue indefinitely with words that are incapable of expressing the fullness of Diego Maradona, and why he means so much to so many. Kapadia describes the process of pinning him down as the, “equivalent of trying to nail jelly to the wall” . But maybe he would conclude that any authentic story must make its peace with the irreconcilable and the artificial. As football writer Marcela Mora y Araujo puts it, “Maradona’s popularity worldwide would probably be best explained if we could accept contradiction as truth.” 

Reflecting on the sheer intensity and craziness of the situations Maradona found himself in (and created for himself) on his way to becoming a living Saint, Kapadia stops short of apologising for him, but rather asks, “how could anyone survive this?”  What is clear at the very least is that Maradona is a survivor, continuing to court and cheat death with alarming regularity. After a serious heart attack in 2004, from which he made a full recovery, well-wishers arrived at the hospital carrying a sign that read, “Jesus was resurrected once. You, many times.” 

It’s no surprise to hear him speak of his affinity for self-destructive Bronx boxer Jake LaMotta. Or more precisely, Robert De Nero’s visceral portrayal of him in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1981) – “I’m an actor”, he says, “but I don’t read the script, I live it.”  At a certain point in his life he even began to talk about himself in the third person, prompting his personal trainer Fernando Signorini to caution, “With Diego, I would go to the end of the world. But with Maradona I wouldn’t take a step.”

Maradona has played so many versions of himself that when Kapadia cuts to the film’s first contemporary images, and we realise that the story is coming to a close, it feels strange that he has spent so little time with him in the years since Napoli – in Mexico where he now lives; his native Argentina and his hometown club, Boca Juniors; or in Cuba and Venezuela where he spent time with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. 

But perhaps he senses that the story of Diego Maradona could go on forever, in any direction, and that there is no such thing as a complete representation of anyone. So instead he reaches backwards, for the oldest image in the film, and lets it go.

It is of a young Diego, nine or ten years old, juggling a tatty ball on the streets of Villa Fiorito, the tough, working class neighbourhood of his childhood on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. In extended footage of the scene, the camera cuts to his face and he says, “I have two dreams. One is to play in the World Cup, the other is to win it” – and as the ball floats from the left foot that Kapadia was so desperate to touch, to the tip of his forehead, the screen flickers with an image of pure finesse that lingers in the imagination like the opening line of a great book. His brother Raúl, also interviewed, adds, “My brother is a Martian”.  

Sam Kenyon 
Programme Producer, Document Film Festival

All Monday to Friday shows before 5pm have capacity capped at 50% (unless otherwise stated). All other screenings have full unlimited seating capacity (unless otherwise stated).

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