Monday, October 16, 2006

Portrait of an Artist

Football and cinema generally go together like tar and pastry. Escape to Victory(its ironic glory aside), When Saturday Comes, Goal!, among many others, are characteristic examples of the cinematic professional fouls committed in the name of the beautiful game. Perhaps only The Arsenal Stadium Mystery and, at a stretch, Gregory's Girl have involved football successfully as as a plot device in film; yet, in both of those, the game was periperal to the central themes.

In Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, on the other hand, there is little else: the recently released arthouse film focuses 17 cameras on the now-retired titular Frenchman for the duration of Real Madrid's Primera Liga match against Villareal at the Bernabeu on 23rd April 2005.

Soundtracked moodily by Scottish post-rockers Mogwai, the action follows the great man from every conceivable angle: extreme close-ups of beads of sweat dripping from his ear; fuzzy, defocused shots from a sideline camera as he ambles along with the play; studies of the ball at his feet and those familar balletic stepovers; then cameras positioned high up in the roof of the stadium detach the viewer suddenly from the action and the noise.

The sound of the crowd, sometimes boomed out deafeningly, at other times reduced to single shouts and the parp of supporters' horns, is interspersed with the Mogwai soundtrack and, at one particularly effective juncture, the sounds of children playing football in a schoolyard are overdubbed, stripping the high octane La Liga visuals to their essence: the humble kickaround.

Zidane, obviously and unavoidably, is the central character, however. The screen is at times subtitled with various statements and thoughts on the game from the player, which add some profundity to the proceedings - for example his comment on how, when a game is going badly, you can hear everything, the insults, people whispering to each other - but the central thrust of the film is the study in inscrutability of the man himself.

He has always been a somewhat enigmatic figure, seemingly detached but capable of outbursts of great rage - this game and this year's World Cup Final providing examples of that - as many moments of great beauty. His facial expression for most of the match rarely changes from an stony-faced, slightly pensive grumpiness, even when providing, with a moment of trademark dazzling invention, the assist for Madrid's equaliser.

Only in a shared joke with Roberto Carlos does he break out in a smile, a wide and open grin, and the camera lingers on it for every millisecond until he rejoins the game and the unknowable mask returns.

His sending-off after a violent intervention following a brutal Villareal tackle on one of his team-mates is rendered all the more shocking for that previous statuesque demeanour, the context of the moment benefitting from the subsequent similar sudden explosion of temper in the direction of Marco Materazzi over a year later.

Zidane's charisma means he holds the attention for much of the duration of what, at the outset, might seem like a daunting viewing exercise. True, there are spells when shots of the player ambling around, kicking his heels, adjusting his shorts or wiping sweat from his brow lead one to speculate that film might be better viewed in a Match of the Day highlights package. There is also the suspicion that putting a moody soundtrack and numerous unusual camera angles on footage of lawn bowls would add similar, beard-stroking profundity where none actually exists.

However, the 92 minutes of this film are hynotic and thought-provoking all the same: on the nature of the sporting figure's life within the modern gladiatorial arena in which he performs and on the character of the man himself - which remains, despite documentation to the minutest detail, mysterious and enigmatic.


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