With Diego Maradona, Asif Kapadia completes a trilogy of documentaries about individuals both revered and reviled in their lifetimes - the Argentinian footballer proving worthy of the same close, textured study Kapadia afforded to Brazil's Ayrton Senna in 2010's Senna and Camden Town's Amy Winehouse in 2015's Amy. Maradona, however, is the first of these subjects to still be among us, somehow barrelling onwards much as he did on the pitch, as impervious to sporting infamy and drug dependency issues as he was to the challenges of the England back four at Mexico '86. Kapadia's film opens a few seasons earlier, at what is swiftly identified as a formative moment in this career: fresh from a turbulent spell at Barcelona - the first time Maradona attracted "new Pele" comparisons, while crocking his ankle and getting involved in a mass brawl in a studs-first manner indistinguishable from GBH - and arriving at mid-table Napoli as the most expensive player in world football. (The fee: a cool £5m, eight million less than Bournemouth paid Bristol City for the services of Lloyd Kelly this past summer. Different times.) It is, also, a particular moment in football: the point where, overnight, money bestowed celebrity on talent, and a simple game was converted into a saleable brand. For two hours, Kapadia shows his subject progressing from boy to man to living god to devil incarnate, noting with each quicksilver turn of his feet how he was and wasn't changed by success; each clip that scrolls before us captures something of how Maradona imposed himself on the ball and thus the world, or conversely how the world imposed itself on Maradona.
For the most part, it's a matter of reconciling the two halves of the Maradona personality: the film is astute indeed on how a young man first makes a name for himself, and then how such a name might be interpreted and besmirched. (It's rhetorically perfect that the film should carry its subject's full name in its title, where Senna and Amy - whose subjects' lives were cut tragically short - went with one or the other.) Early on, Kapadia seeds the idea of a clear split between Diego (as his family are heard referring to him), the gifted kid who burst out of the Buenos Aires slums, and Maradona, the name subsequently emblazoned upon scoreboards and tabloids alike. It was Diego who had the drive to press forwards, make some space for himself and outpace all those who stood between him and his goal. It was the more expressive Maradona who courted celebrity and notoriety, and eventually passed into legend. From the off, Kapadia works in almost as many shots of the Argentinian partying as playing, and the coked-up monster seen barracking opposition fans at the 2018 World Cup doesn't seem so far away from the Maradona the film chances upon the day after the 1986 triumph, surrounded by open bottles, demanding a limo and flaunting his pin-ups, in a way you couldn't ever imagine Lionel Messi doing on camera. (If ever a player deserved to be called Messi, it was Maradona.) Yet the Napoli years allow Kapadia to return us to a prelapsarian moment when, framed by his halo of dark curls, Maradona was looked upon as the second coming of Christ, subject to the adoration of the faithful (a telling cutaway: to the fan clutching a discarded boot as if it were a holy relic) and the attentions of the Camorra. Watching Maradona being mobbed by fans and pursued by the Mob, you realise Kapadia is bearing witness to a footballing miracle: that Diego Maradona ever got out of Italy in one piece. Debate the Hand of God goal all you want, but somebody up there clearly liked him.
At the end of a decade in which he's announced himself among the major players in cinematic non-fiction, we might usefully ask what kind of name Kapadia is making for himself. Evidently, he's one of our best searchers and handlers of archive, again working here in well-organised, superbly illustrated blocks of footage: on Maradona's upbringing, his lovelife, setting the triumphs of one season against the failures of the next. Very much a football fan, he knows exactly what he's looking for, whether on the terraces (locating in the Argentinian fans' end a Death to Thatcher banner presumably shown on TV for mere seconds, if at all) or out on the field of play. Here, you sense Kapadia may have studied Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno's artier Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait, sometimes presenting Maradona in a trippy slow-motion, working with the ball, outthinking the defensive line, and turning such thoughts into exhilarating action. Perhaps sporting genius needs to be isolated to be fully appreciated. If the Hand of God goal now looks like an example of a supremely self-assured individual pushing his luck and seeing what he could get away with - string theorists will wonder what direction that tournament and this life might have taken if it had been ruled out - any residual rancour is swept away by the split-second decision Maradona takes in the build-up to his second goal to walk the ball round the diving Peter Shilton, rather than simply knocking it under him, as looks the more obvious option. You and I might ask: why? I suspect Maradona's riposte would always be: why not? He'd got this far; the extra hard yards were as nothing. (And we're left to apply that rationale to the less cheering excesses of Maradona's personal life.)
Kapadia, in other words, wants to explain our fascination with celebrity, rather than exploit it: his stance is that if we are going to spend our days banging on about sportsmen and singers as our ancestors did about Zeus, we'd do well to analyse what their legends tell us about the paths we follow and the choices that present themselves to us. The approach explains why Diego Maradona follows Amy in running two hours plus. Extra time permits a reflection absent from those 90-minute hagiographies ITV4 runs when the channel isn't showing darts or snooker, a scholarliness that elevates each film above mere fanboyism. The absence of talking heads with famous faces speaks to an editorial scepticism about celebrity, borne out by the stories Kapadia tells; staying at some remove allows him to view his subjects in all their complexity. (I wish Kapadia had landed the commission to make the Gazza documentary, which had all the right elements for him; Maradona's story may be as close as he could get.) In this case, it also allows us to see how destructive fanboyism can be: look at the crowds massing outside Maradona's home, listen to the tale of the nurse who had the player's blood sample consecrated, observe the whole of Italy - including the Camorra - turning against him after he helped eliminate his hosts from the 1990 World Cup finals, and you might just get a feel for why a fellow begins to liberally self-medicate. Crucially, Kapadia gives Maradona the space to be who he turned out to be, and reserves judgement until after the final whistle. You may still come away from Diego Maradona calling the Argentinian a cheat or a burnout and worse things besides, but I'd challenge anyone to sit in front of the footage it marshals of Maradona in his playing prime and not, at some point, let out a gasp: my god, he was good.
Diego Maradona is available to stream via the BFI and on DVD through Altitude.