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Cannes 2019

Cannes 2019, Day 7: Diego Maradona's pain and glory

Mars Films | Diego Maradona arrives at the Stadio San Paolo in Naples in the summer of 1984.

Cannes witnessed the rise and demise of Diego Maradona in Asif Kapadia’s documentary on the fallen God of football, while Terrence Malick tackled faith and martyrdom in a “A Hidden Life”, about an Austrian farmer who refused to fight for Hitler.

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After three days and three nights of relentless drizzle, the rain has finally stopped tormenting the 72nd Cannes Film Festival, chased away by the first rays of sun. Who are we to thank? The hand of God, perhaps?

“Thank you God for football and for Maradona!” It’s a cry of joy many have heard before. El pibe de oro (the golden foot) has just scored his second, memorable goal in Argentina’s 1986 World Cup quarter-final victory, and the Argentinian commentator is waxing lyrical. Maradona’s glorious run past England’s hapless defenders is the stuff of legend, second only in fame to the goal he scored minutes earlier with his hand – the “hand of God”, as he coined it. The brilliance and the trickery, the prodigy and the myth. “Cosmic kite, what planet are you from that you can leave so many Englishmen in your wake?” the commentator rambles on, sobbing with joy at a feat celebrated across Argentina as revenge for the Falklands War.

The extraordinary case of Dr Diego and Mr Maradona is the subject of a documentary by Britain’s Asif Kapadia, which screened out of competition at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival. The British director has described “Diego Maradona” as the third and last instalment in a trilogy about child prodigies who struggled with fame. It follows “Senna”, his documentary on the racecar driver who died at 34 in a crash, and Oscar-winning “Amy”, about singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse and her tragic death at 27. This time his subject matter is still alive – though only just.

One of sport’s most cinematic (anti)heroes, the Argentinian footballer is something of a Cannes habitué in his own right. Four years ago we had a Maradona lookalike in Paolo Sorrentino’s“Youth”, a meditation on aging. His juggling display, bouncing a tennis ball with still-agile feet while dragging his humongous belly around the court, was a delight to watch. The man himself hit the red carpet a decade ago for a screening of Emir Kusturica’s biopic “Maradona by Kusturica” – which, as the title suggested, was as much about the director as the footballer. With Kapadia, Maradona’s remarkable life is in more dependable hands. His documentary focuses on the footballer’s Neapolitan years, from his arrival as a saviour to his cocaine-fuelled downfall.

“I’m after the glory, not the money,” says a still-young Maradona as he quits mighty Barcelona for Italian laggards Napoli in the summer of 1984. The Italian club has never won a title and its city and people are the butt of every racist joke in the country (to this day, rival fans still taunt them with chants of “Vesuvius, wash them with fire”). It’s a preposterous career move, unthinkable in today’s football, obsessed as it is with money and success. But Maradona and Naples are a perfect match, sharing the same humble origins, the same intoxicating passion, and the same rebellious streak. Soon he will lift the team’s fortunes and restore the city’s pride – becoming, in the process, a hero, a saint and a god.

The film opens with breathtaking footage of Maradona’s first arrival at the San Paolo stadium, crammed with 85,000 delirious fans. The pandemonium is exhilarating and overwhelming, as is the two-month-long rumpus that follows Napoli’s very first title win three years later. Never before had a sport star aroused such levels of devotion and hysteria (at one point a nurse takes a sample of his blood to a local church to mix it with relics of San Gennaro, the city’s patron saint). But the flipside of fame and the dark side of Naples soon catch up with him. He has a child out of wedlock (which he refuses to recognise), frequents the Camorra (the local mafia), and becomes a cocaine addict. And when his Argentina knock Italy out of the 1990 World Cup at the San Paolo stadium – of all places – the country turns against him. He is a fallen god, and the backlash is vicious.

Kapadia has uncovered an extraordinary wealth of documentary material, from black-and-white footage of Maradona as a little boy knocking a ball around in the slums of Buenos Aires to an audio recording of his phone conversation with his elated mother shortly after Argentina won the Word Cup. His film follows a familiar pattern, distinguishing between Diego – the shy, insecure and good-natured kid who supported his family from the age of 15 – and Maradona – the god-like public persona he became. It is a beautiful homage to the most exceptional footballer of all time, treating him kindly as a victim of celebrity. But it doesn’t dig nearly as deep into the man’s inner turmoil as the director achieved with “Amy”. I left the screening dazzled by the football, the passion and the aura, but feeling I had learned little new.

I had similar misgivings after Terrence Malick’s competition entry “A Hidden Life”, based on the true story of Franz Jagerstatter, an Austrian conscientious objector who refused to fight for the Nazis and paid the ultimate price. The three-hour-long epic marks Malick’s return to Cannes, eight years after he picked up a Palme d’Or for “The Tree of Life”. It also signals his much-touted return to narrative after a string of impenetrable films turned entirely towards introspection. Sadly, “A Hidden Life” serves up a deeply moving story and a fascinating moral quandary, only to leave both desperately unexplored.

We meet Franz (played by Austrian actor August Diehl), his loving wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) and their three children at their farm in the village of St Radegund, high up in the Austrian Alps. It’s a bucolic corner of paradise not unlike the Berghof, Hitler’s Bavarian mountain retreat, which we see in archival footage that Malick blends into the narrative. Theirs is an idyllic rural life without hardship, until Franz is called up to fight for a cause he abhors. A deeply pious man, he seeks advice from the local priest and then a bishop, only to be told that his duty before God is to “defend the homeland” (decades later, a repentant Catholic Church would declare Jagerstatter a martyr). Franz refuses to take an oath of loyalty to the Fuhrer, and is promptly ostracized, arrested and sentenced to death. He is given several chances to repent, but this is a man who would rather be free of guilt than go free.

It’s almost a surprise the veteran US director has waited so long before doing a film about Nazi Germany (he’s treated World War II already with “The Thin Red Line”, but that was in the Pacific). Hitler’s mad quest is the closest we have ever come to a man-made apocalypse, making it fairly easy material for Malickian ruminations about faith, good and evil, God’s intentions, and the meaning of life. But his protagonist largely shuts himself off from the outside world just as we yearn to get inside his soul and thought process (he won’t even answer his wife’s desperate queries), with the film offering only oblique pointers on the inner turmoil at play. As always, the picture is gorgeous to look at, the camera swerving and looping around the characters (and the cattle) in another virtuoso performance. It’s a rhapsody on pastoral life, full of loving gazes, ravishing close-ups and sumptuous landscapes. But Malick has done this before, in (slightly) shorter films that have a lot more to say.

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