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Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait

Posted: October 9th, 2006, by Alex McChesney

First, a confession of prejudice: I don’t like football. In fact, sometimes I hate it with a passion. The antipathy comes from growing up in a soccer-free household and being the wilfully unsporty kid who always got chosen last for school playground matches anyway. The strong dislike comes from living in Glasgow. I’m not sure if that part requires explanation or not. Anyway, my heart sank rather when, upon signing up for a course on contemporary international cinema at the GFT, I found out that the first screening would be a documentary about a footballer.

But Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait isn’t your average documentary. The film follows Zenedine Zidane throughout the course of the Real Madrid vs Villa Real game of April 23, 2005, in real time, from the moment he steps onto the pitch, to the moment he leaves it 97 minutes later. The progress of the game itself is mostly incidental; what’s happening elsewhere on the pitch is of little or no interest to the camera. Only Zidane himself is important.

The majority of the film keeps him centre-screen, following him around the pitch, but it is punctuated by shifts in style. The camera will drift out of focus, or become momentarily distracted by some tiny detail – the goal netting, or a television camera – or disappear to the very top of the stadium and take in the whole-game in long-shot. We are briefly treated to a short series of subtitles from, presumably, an interview with the man himself, in which he talks about playing football as a child. Sometimes we hear his every breath, muttered word or thump of ball-against-foot. Presumably he has one or more radio mics on him. Either that, or this film deserves an oscar for foley work alone. At other times, only the excellent Mogwai soundtrack is audible. At one point, the sound of the match is replaced with that of children playing.

The problem is, for all its technical excellence, and the bravery inherant in making such a film, is that Zidane isn’t particularly enjoyable to watch. For much of the film, he is blank. Stoically focussed on the progress of the game elsewhere on the field. When the ball does come to him, it’s gone again in moments, and with a couple of exceptions you are left with little or no sense of where it went or how his actions affected the outcome of the match. The film doesn’t stick with him at half-time, preferring instead a montage of images from around the world on a single day, and by never allowing him an existance beyond the pitch, he becomes a sweating, spitting footballing machine whose final product you have precious little chance to appreciate since, whenever he does encounter the ball it is gone again in moments. The film doesn’t really care about the game, only the player, but divorcing one from the other leaves him diminished and dull.

If the intention of a portrait is to give you some insight into the person depicted, then you come away from this film having learned that Zidane is a professional footballer who’s concentration on the game is absolute, except on occasions when his temper bubbles over, as in the incident which earns him a red card, ending his game, and the film, anticlimactically.

And so you wait, patiently, for one of the film’s aforementioned breaks from watching Zidane run on a giant green treadmill, and when they come they can be surprisingly beautiful. In one brief sequence the roar of the crowd, and the accompanying Mogwai soundtrack, are filtered and distant as we are taken on a walk from the corridors behind the stands into the stadium proper, like a fan who had to nip out to piss and his hurrying back in case he misses something. Aside from being aesthetically pleasing, these moments impart a sense of place, and the communal event taking place, and seem far more powerful than watching Zidane spit for the 80th time.

If the point is to give you a sense of a man withing the same framework as you, a member of the public, might otherwise experience him (by watching a game), but with all extraneous detail stripped away leaving you with just him and his game, then as an experiment the film is a success. Unfortunately, the findings of the experiment seem to be that there isn’t much to show.

But, then, maybe lacking the gene that allows the appreciation of football also means being unable to appreciate lengthy closeups of sweaty footballers. I think I’m happy about that, come to think of it.

Zidane, un portrait du 21e siecle at the IMDB

Alex McChesney

Alex was brought up by a family of stupid looking monkeys after being lost in the deep jungles of Paisley. Teaching him all their secret conga skills (as well as how to throw barrels at plumbers), Alex was able to leave for the bright lights of Glasgow where adventure struck him and he needed all his conga skills to save the world and earn the hand of a lovely Texan princess. He now keeps a low profile alphabeticising his record collection and making sock monkeys in the likenesses of his long lost family.


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