Category: Sport on Film

Diego Maradona (UK 2019)

Maradona has media attention at San Paolo in Napoli

This is the third documentary biopic by Asif Kapadia following Senna (UK 2010) and Amy (UK 2015). It certainly matches the brilliance of those two earlier films. Kapadia, editor Chris King and music composer Antonio Pinto have again excelled themselves in creating a compelling narrative from found footage (mostly from the subject’s own archive) and audio interviews. I don’t think, however, that the three subjects are necessarily comparable. Certainly they each had careers with stellar periods and a strong emotional bond with fans but although they were both South American sporting legends, Ayrton Senna and Diego Maradona came from different backgrounds and the impulses behind the endings of their careers were quite different. Amy Winehouse was in some ways equally troubled by her attempts to deal with success and her emotional life as was Maradona but the music industry of the 2000s provides a different context to football in the 1980s.

Maradona, World Cup winner in Mexico 1986

If you don’t know the Maradona story, the film is mainly concerned with the period Diego Maradona spent as a footballer at Napoli between 1984 and 1991. He was 23 when he signed for Napoli after two seasons at Barcelona and 30 when he left Napoli. There is some coverage of his childhood and early career and a brief coda about what happened when he left Napoli. The focus on this period also includes his appearances with the Argentinian national team which won the the 1986 World Cup in Mexico and were beaten finalists in ‘Italia 90’ – West Germany were the opponents on each occasion.

Asif Kapadia is a football fan according to his tweets about supporting Liverpool. Yet one of the odd points about his Maradona film is that, despite a lot of footage from games featuring Napoli and Argentina, the film does not explore football itself in the way that Senna seemed to me to be partly ‘about’ motor racing. However, I did find the football match footage fascinating. Maradona made goals for other players that were deceptively simple but often scored goals himself that seemed to be magical in the way he bent the ball. The primary focus of the film is the footballer’s psychological profile which is outlined here by his personal trainer at Napoli.

Diego with his parents

The personal trainer tells us that Diego the young man is vulnerable because of his insecurities. He is a family man close to his mother and a likeable person. Maradona the footballer, bought for the then record transfer fee of $6.9 million in 1984 is, by contrast, constructed to survive in top class football. He develops a carapace to protect himself and his skills. ‘Maradona’ is a much more troubling character who looks for diversions in the wrong places when he is not training and playing. The narrative of his life then becomes the story of how ‘Maradona’ becomes almost a God in Naples before destroying himself and almost destroying Diego. Kapadia called his film ‘Diego Maradona’ – both names – whereas the earlier films, ‘Senna’ and ‘Amy’, used only one.

As in the other films, the archive footage tells the story through the edit, with ‘witness’ interviews played in audio over the archive material. I don’t think anyone is interviewed on screen by Kapadia or his team, though there are several archive interviews. The film flows because of the brilliance of the editing decisions, both what to include and how to cut it, and the music. It runs for 130 minutes and though some have suggested the match footage could be shortened, most football fans will want to see all of it – partly because we are offered different viewpoints than was usual for 1980s TV coverage. Because most of the footage is from video recordings or 8mm film the disparity between 35mm film and video is not so pronounced. The two World Cup finals and a later Argentinian TV interview from 2004 stand out in terms of higher definition. I assume that the video material has been cropped in many cases but I was so taken up with the pace of the narrative that I didn’t notice any changes of aspect ratio or obvious cropping.

One other difference in this Kapadia film is the importance of Napoli as a location, but also as a ‘character’ in the story. I hadn’t realised just how much Napoli was seen as an underperforming club in Serie A before Maradona’s arrival or how much the North-South divide mattered in Italian football. Napoli’s stadium, San Paolo was finally completed in 1959 but when Maradona is first introduced to fans at the stadium in 1984 I was struck by the long walk to the pitch from the bowels of the stadium with high walls over which the crowds could see Maradona emerging on the pitch. I was reminded of gladiators entering the arena in Roman times. Later, when Maradona reached his highest status with the fans, murals began to appear  claiming him as the modern manifestation of San Gennaro, Naples’ patron saint.

What most intrigued me was the inclusion of two or three soundbites in which Maradona is referred to (in the subtitles) as “this black kid from a poor neighbourhood”. Kapadia clearly chose these clips but the format doesn’t really allow any discussion of the implication that some of Maradona’s problems come from the prejudice that his family faced in Argentina and elsewhere. I was reminded of the not dissimilar case of Luis Suaréz who has been a highly successful South American player in European football for over ten years, but like Maradona he has also been embroiled in various controversial incidents (all on the field). In 2011 as a Liverpool player Suaréz was banned for eight matches and fined for using racist language in an altercation with Patrice Evra. Suaréz did not accept the charge, claiming that the use of terms for ‘black’ in Latin America was different to that in Europe. There is a long tradition of South American players signing for clubs in Spain and Italy, but in the 1980s the film suggests that Maradona still felt an outsider.

Asif Kapadia does include the moment when Maradona became notorious in England with the ‘hand of God’ goal in Mexico – but also scored one of the greatest World Cup goals. The link is made to the Malvinas War which I’m sure was a worrying time for Argentinians as well as for those of us in the UK who didn’t support Thatcher’s war. I noted that the footage of the game in Mexico revealed some horrendous English fouls as the players sought in vain to negate Maradona’s influence on the game.

Maradona celebrates with his daughter, Dalma(?)

Overall, although I really enjoyed the film and I recommend it highly, I’m wondering now if there is enough worthwhile material to make a longer documentary serial for TV. I’d like to know more about football culture and institutions in Italy, Argentina and worldwide in the 1980s and I’d also like a little more about ‘Diego’ as well as about Maradona.

The Keeper (Trautmann, Germany-UK 2018)

This is an enjoyable and well-produced German-UK co-production focused on events in the life of Bert Trautmann, a German POW in Lancashire in the closing stages of the Second World War who became a famous goalkeeper at Manchester City with a career spanning 15 years from 1949. It’s not a full biopic of Bert Trautmann nor is it a generic sports drama. Instead it’s an unusual romance with both the war (and its aftermath) and sport as major elements. It’s also a largely ‘true story’, but with significant omissions and possible misrepresentations. But these changes don’t negate a strong narrative. Unfortunately, the independent UK distributor Parkland Entertainment has been unable to exploit the film fully with a release on 84 screens. The result is that despite audience support and some strong reviews, it’s actually been quite difficult to find the film in UK cinemas. Wherever it has played, audience responses have been good so perhaps it will succeed on DVD and VOD? The film received a wider release, I think, in Germany in March 2019, but despite making No 10 in the chart only lasted a couple of weeks making around $600,000. In the UK it had made £300,000 after six weeks.

The ‘real’ Bert Trautmann playing against Wolves

David Kross as Trautmann, dealing as best he can with hostile supporters

My personal attachment to the story is that the first televised football match that I watched was the 1956 Cup Final in which Manchester City beat Birmingham City. It became known as ‘the Trautmann final’ and what happened to Bert Trautmann on that day is an important element of the film’s narrative. However, the wider story of Trautmann’s first twenty years in the UK features many other important elements. The story, written by the director Marcus H Rosenmüller with Nicholas J. Schofield and producer Robert Marciniak takes the main points of Trautmann’s story and smooths them into a satisfying romantic drama in which Bert Trautmann emerges as a heroic figure in the UK. There is rather more in the full true story. It seems to have taken some time for the German producers to find UK partners and put the funding together. Like several other recent UK productions, the whole UK shoot seems to have been based in the North of Ireland with Belfast and its hinterland standing in for Lancashire. Effective CGI recreates both the former Manchester City ground at Maine Road and the old Wembley stadium. A German shoot based in München provides some wartime scenes and flashback material. Cinematography by Daniel Gottschalk and the production design, art direction and costume design make a good stab at representing the late 1940s/early 1950s. The supporting cast is led by well-known character actors such as John Henshaw, Dervla Kirwan and Gary Lewis which gives it heft, but the film stands or falls on its pairing of David Kross as Trautmann and Freya Mavor as Margaret, the young woman he marries. Both are excellent.

Margaret and her father (John Henshaw) confront Sergeant Smythe (Harry Melling)

Rather than outline the narrative I think it is useful to spell out some of the interesting facts in Bert Trautmann’s story in order to explain the film’s appeal. Trautmann was a tall and handsome man with blue eyes and fair hair. He volunteered for the paratroopers aged 17, won an Iron Cross  and survived the war, being captured and escaping several times before becoming a POW in early 1945. He was a good footballer and played as a POW alongside farm work. When professional football re-started after 1945, crowds were enormous and unlike today, big city clubs attracted a mainly male working-class audience from the local area. Manchester City had a significant section of potential support from the large local Jewish community. It is a measure of Trautmann’s ability as a player that he did eventually win over the fans despite the doubts about his wartime exploits. The obvious issue for the filmmakers was the question of how to deal with the ‘Good German’ – i.e. how to humanise the character and to avoid creating either a saintly figure or one who may appear duplicitous. Two other recent films come to mind, The Aftermath (UK-Germany 2019) and Land of Mine (Denmark-Germany 2015). Both are relevant here in different ways. In The Keeper, there are two strategies. The first is to deflect the questions about Trautmann’s potential Nazi past by including more obvious Nazi characters amongst the POWs and by creating what seems like the exaggerated figure of the British sergeant in charge of the camp’s work details and who displays no sense of any tolerance or understanding whatsoever. This character also appears in the other films but I wonder if Rosenmüller found it difficult to direct the acting performance by Harry Melling? The other strategy here is to put the onus of defending Bert onto Margaret as his wife. Freya Mavor does very well with what I think is a difficult role. It would be interesting to compare Margaret as the younger, working-class/lower middle-class woman in the same position as the older, upper middle-class Rachel (played by Keira Knightley) in The Aftermath.

The narrative emphasises the romance between Bert and Margaret (Freya Mavor)

I’m not going to spoil the last section of the narrative covering the Cup Final and its immediate aftermath. All I’ll say is that there is tragedy that leavens the expected feelgood factor. The film finishes with titles that tell us what happened to Bert Trautmann as a footballer (he played his last City game in 1964). But apart from telling us that Margaret died in 1980 and Bert died in 2013, it says nothing more about the years after 1964. This is understandable in the attempt to streamline the story and there is enough incident in both the sports story and the romance to satisfy audiences. (If you want to know more about this remarkable man see this biography page.)

I recognised David Kross but couldn’t place where I’d seen him before. Later I realised he was the lead in the excellent youth picture Tough Enough (Knallhart, Germany 2006) when he would have been 15. I was pleased also to see Freya Mavor. I was most  aware of her from Sunshine on Leith (UK 2013) but researching this film I discovered that she has experience in French film and theatre as well as in Scottish cinema. I wonder if she speaks German as well? The Keeper was dubbed into German for its release there in 2018. The film’s credits are long at the end but it’s worth sitting through them to hear a Noel Gallagher song (he and his brother are massive Man City fans).

GFF19 #4: Permission (Araghe Sard a.k.a. Cold Sweat, Iran 2018)

Afrooz celebrates after scoring a goal

This Iranian film features a couple of ideas that will be familiar to fans of global cinema. Firstly it constructs a narrative about the attempts of patriarchy to restrain women’s rights to engage with and enjoy football, as in Jafar Panahi’s Offside (2006). Secondly, it plays out a court procedure with the camera trained on a warring married couple while keeping the judge offscreen. Although the framings and composition are different this scene resembles the well-known one at the beginning of Asgar Farhadi’s A Separation (2011).

The team, led by Afrooz, arrive at the airport

The sport in the film is actually futsal, an indoor football game played by by both men and women with five players per side. Since 1999 Iran have won all but three Asian Women’s Futsal Championships. They have also reached the last four of the Fifa World Championship. The game is very important for female athletes in Iran and the focus in the film is on the national team’s (fictitious) captain and main goalscorer Afrooz (Baran Kosari). When the team travels to the airport to fly to Malaysia for the Asian Championships, Afrooz is stopped  by passport control and told that she cannot leave the country because her husband has not given his permission (which presumably he has in the past since Afrooz is the team’s top player).

The highly-experienced Baran Kosari gives a strong performance as Afrooz

Afrooz tries to contact her husband Yasser, a daytime TV host. But the couple haven’t lived together for some time and in fact Afrooz is living with another team member Panatea in a flat also owned by her husband. Yasser (Amir Jadidi) does everything he can to prevent Afrooz leaving, including physical harassment. The legal conundrum is that Afrooz must either get his permission to travel or obtain a divorce, which seems very difficult in the couple of days before the games begin.

I won’t spoil the narrative of a film by detailing the plot since the film should appear in the UK at some point. The legal issue is quite complex as is often the case in Iran. I’m not sure how constitutional law works in Iran but in most of the films I’ve seen the judiciary seem thorough and fair. It’s the laws themselves that are restrictive. The husband is an extremely annoying character. He’s egotistical, forever preening himself and simpering on TV. Afrooz herself is strong and decisive but also quick to anger (a team captain in the Roy Keane mould). She has every right to be angry since she also has to contend with the woman she has hired as a lawyer who seems more interested in making the case into a media event and the woman who is in effect the team manager and chaperone and who acts as the link to the National Federation. Apart from Panatea, will the rest of the women on the team support her?

Afrooz tries rational argument with her husband

A short sequence of a game shown in the early part of the film gives a good representation of the passion of both the players and the fans but I wonder if the struggle by Afrooz to assert her rights is equally well-handled? The trick that Panahi and Farhadi employ so well in these kinds of narratives is to find the humanism in the situation as well as the humour, anger, pathos, frustration and commitment. Writer-director Soheil Beiraghi has got the basis of a good story here (based on real events) but perhaps the script could be developed a little more? Having said that, it is only his second feature as a director and he does create emotional scenes fitting for a melodrama, using close-ups and lighting to show the effect on Afrooz. The film has been generally well-received at festivals and some critics have been very impressed. It’s certainly well worth looking for.

The Glasgow programme listed the film with the title Permission, which seems to be how it has been released in France (as La Permission) but in the US it seems to be Cold Sweat. It would be good to get this sorted if it comes out in the UK. The programme lists the print source as Peccadillo Pictures in the UK, but it hasn’t appeared on that company’s website as yet. Here’s the French trailer:

Comme des garçons (Let the Girls Play, France 2018)

The team play in the French national colours

There is an unwritten rule of European film distribution that comedies struggle to overcome language barriers, so in the UK we only rarely see the sometimes very popular local comedy hits from France, Germany, Italy or Spain. The Online French Film Festival offers a chance to see a range of French films and this year MUBI have streamed a couple of the films on offer. Comme des garçons is, in one sense, very familiar as a sports comedy but one with a serious purpose – always a tricky mix and to complicate things further it is based on real events. The different factors involved in its conception introduce different genre elements and the main task for director Julien Hallard is to keep the different elements working together.

It’s 1969 in Reims, the centre of Champagne, and in an engaging opening sequence we see that all the staff of the local newspaper are glued to transistor radios listening to the unfolding tragedy of their local football team’s relegation to Division 2. Reims was at this point one of the best known and historically successful teams in France. The paper’s young(ish) sports reporter Paul Coutard (Max Boublil) makes a hash of covering the story and his punishment is to organise the paper’s annual charity event alongside his nemesis, the editor’s PA Emmanuelle (Vanessa Guide). Paul decides to try something completely different, a women’s football match. Coutard is a sad character who thinks he is ‘hip’ and initially imagines it will be fun to audition young women for a team and enjoy watching them run around in tiny shorts. I won’t spoil the rest of the narrative which is fairly predictable but I’ll note that the original newspaper scenario seems to be abandoned only to turn up in another guise – Paul’s actual job seems to disappear but his antics with the women’s team become fodder for the tabloids. The comedy becomes a rom-com when Emmanuelle removes her glasses but the sports story, although it utilises several familiar genre narrative devices, doesn’t head for the usual sporting triumph. Instead the contest is really about the struggle to get women’s football taken seriously.

Paul Coutard (Max Boublil) is the reporter who starts the team just for fun

The real historical events do seem to show that France was surprisingly behind most other European countries in the 1960s in the complete lack of any organised women’s football in the face of the intransigence of the national federation to even consider licensing women’s teams. (As in the UK there was a long history of organised women’s football and French and English teams met in front of large crowds in the 1920s but soon after, the national football authorities banned women’s football from professional stadia). The final repertoire that Comme des garçons therefore draws on is the ‘social problem’ of sexism in 1969 – not much different to sexism today. The struggle is represented partly through the comedy and this is where the film does become quite heavy-handed I think. But it did remind me of some of the broader comic moments of 1960s/70s films like Nelly Kaplan’s La fiancée du pirate or François Truffaut’s Une belle fille comme moi (France 1972). It’s modern links are to a film like Populaire (France-Belgium 2012) which is a 1950s set romantic comedy melded with a sport/competition film about ‘speed typing’. That film boasted the star power of Romain Duris and Déborah François and a much stronger aesthetic sense. Comme des garçons has fun with its 1969 vintage vehicles, its pop soundtrack and occasionally with costumes but I didn’t feel a strong sense of time and place. I discovered afterwards that one of the dialogue writers, Claude Le Pape had also worked on Les combattants (France 2014). Perhaps she might have played a bigger writing role? I struggled to read an interview in French with writer-director Julien Hallard and I wasn’t convinced about his overall approach.

Emmanuelle (Vanessa Guide) is more than a match for Paul – and not a bad striker with the ball

The two best-known films focusing on women and football are Bend it Like Beckham (UK-Germany 2002) and Offside (Iran 2006), very different films but both successful in attracting audiences and making real statements. They both focus on the young women at the centre of the narrative and have a clear narrative drive with a conviction about where they want to go. Comme des garçons suffers from making the male journalist the protagonist and not having a similarly strong narrative drive. Having said that, it is still an enjoyable film to watch and for UK viewers there is one familiar character and actor. As in Bend it Like Beckham, it is the father, in this case Emmanuelle’s father who will eventually support his daughter. And here dad is played by BBC4’s ‘Inspector Montalbano’ himself, Luca Zingaretti. (I’m not sure the shorts are a good idea Salvo!)

Official trailer (no subtitles):