Maradona: Larger than life on big screen

May 20, 2008 6:28:36 PM PDT
Soccer great Diego Maradona says biographers and filmmakers have made up stories about him, painted him as a force of evil and even dared to brand him mediocre. At last, he says, someone has his story right.

The hard-living, larger-than-life Argentine hero was at the Cannes Film Festival on Tuesday for the premiere of "Maradona by Kusturica," by Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica ("Underground"), the film world's counterpart to the over-the-top Maradona.

The movie puts a spotlight on the cult of personality around the 47-year-old Maradona, who led Argentina to the 1986 World Cup title and the final in 1990. Hilarious footage shows followers of the "Maradonian Church" formed by worshipping fans, who sing his name to the tune of "Ave Maria," build religious shrines to him and even celebrate a wedding in his honor.

It also explores Maradona's past cocaine use, his relationship with his two daughters and his political side.

On screen, Maradona shows off his tattoo of Fidel Castro. He says he would never shake hands with Prince Charles. And he calls President Bush a "piece of human garbage."

Off screen, he's just as outspoken.

"It seems that when you become a well-known figure you aren't allowed to talk about the United States or Bush," Maradona told reporters. "There are a lot of subjects that you aren't allowed to talk about anymore. But Emir showed me the respect that every human being deserves. Even if you're a soccer player, you have the right to express your opinions about somebody who's a murderer."

While Maradona's rivalry with Brazilian great Pele doesn't come up in the film, it did at the Cannes news conference, where Maradona insisted he was the greater player ? a viewpoint disputed by many soccer fans.

"I promised my daughters that I wouldn't talk about Pele, but well, I can't prevent myself ? I regret it for him," Maradona said. "If I hadn't done all the bad things that I've done in my life, Pele would never have been able to come along as No. 2 behind me, because he used to go to bed at 10 o'clock at night, whereas I was still out on the tiles until 5 o'clock in the morning. That's the big difference between us."

Maradona, who gamely dribbled a ball and balanced it on his head like a seal for Cannes paparazzi, said his wild past was behind him.

"I've abandoned all those bad habits," a slimmed-down, cleaned-up Maradona said. "Now I have a different life. And above all I'm not living at 100 miles an hour as I used to. I enjoy life."

Maradona, who cooperated with Kusturica on the project, said the movie is the first about him that he's ever appreciated.

"I've been described as somebody evil, somebody bad, somebody mediocre," he said. "People have said many, many nasty things about me. It's certainly Emir who's able to penetrate my heart and talk about what I lived through, not only in the good moments but also in the bad moments of my life."

One distraction in the movie is that Kusturica, a two-time winner of Cannes' top prize, appears in the film nearly as often as Maradona. Kusturica argues that Maradona could have been a character in one of his own absurdist movies, and to prove the point he includes film clips from them ? a device Maradona fans might find annoying.

Kusturica says he had a good reason for playing such a large role. Mercurial Maradona wasn't always around when the filmmaker expected him to be.

"There were times when I couldn't find Diego in Buenos Aires," he said.


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