Portrait du 21ieme Siecle. Zinédine Zidane
This article is from 2006.
It's a movie that spends its entire length in angry close up on one footballer throughout the full 90 minutes of a game. But if you reckon that sounds like a monumental bore draw, think again. In fact, argues Jason Solomons, it's the greatest football film of all time.
After the stultifying performances of so many highly-paid footballers at this World Cup (England, you know I'm talking about you), it's hard to believe a film about a footballer could penetrate to the very soul of the human condition. Yet that's exactly the genius of Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno's study: Zinédine Zidane, Portrait du 21ème Siècle.
The supreme irony, perhaps, is that Zidane, the ageing warhorse, the fading star, has been the story of the tournament; performing as if the entire World Cup were a movie cast around him. His gradual on-field rejuvenation has in fact given this on-screen version a timely boost, because Zidane the movie is an intensely focused one-man-show, training 17 cameras on him for the full 90 minutes of a Spanish Primera Liga match featuring Zidane's Real Madrid at home in their mighty Bernabeu Stadium against an obdurate Villareal.
What emerges is a remarkable portrait of a working man, a classic 'ouvrier', as the French term it, picturing the footballer with all the detail, grace and compassion of a Velasquez or a Degas. We watch him go about his business and it's utterly hypnotic as he dips in and out of the action - a flick here, a feint there, a lay-off, a sublimely-balanced piece of control, a burst of speed, a gesticulation to an out-of-shot team mate.
He touches the ball remarkably infrequently yet there's no doubt we're watching the game tick around him. He's always in frame, sweat pouring off that iconic, Mt Rushmore-ready face, suggesting that for all his fluidity of movement, there's supreme concentration and muscle control at work beneath the glistening skin.
The first half (of the game and the movie) allows viewers to become equally immersed in concentration. There is the modern hero, huge before our eyes, but ploughing a lonely furrow. He jogs up the pitch and back, not receiving the ball, making himself available but watching it fly over his head or in a different direction. One thinks of Sisyphus, forever condemned to watch the rock roll back past him. The footballer must continue his task, and, just as that famous footballing philosopher Albert Camus said of Sisyphus, we must imagine Zidane happy in his role, even if he doesn't look it.
The footballer's loneliness is emphasised by the imprisoning effect of advertising. He plays encased by commercials - the unavoidable symbols of corporate control emblazoned on his chest and sleeves, sliding into every frame on neon boards that surround the pitch. He is practically silent in his cocoon of concentration, yet also drowning in the noise of the crowd and the shouts of his team mates. The film's sound design brings this extraordinary predicament to light, swooshing in and out of Zidane's head, pulsing from deafening to muted, as if filtered through cotton wool.
Half time comes as some relief, to the viewer and to the star. Rarely can the mental state of an athlete been so minutely conveyed to the point of prompting our own empathetic exhaustion. But here the film raises its game to another level, taking us out of the football-blinkered Madrid arena and into a cosmic reverie. A montage ticks off other events happening in the world on the same day (23 April 2005) - a scientific discovery, the appearance of a rare bird, the death of actor John Mills, the director's missed dental appointment and, most poignant of all, a still photo of the aftermath of a bomb attack in Iraq in which a boy runs screaming from the carnage. He's wearing a Real Madrid top, bearing the name Zidane.
Existential drift over and the second half begins, the explosion of sound jolting us back into concentration as the cameras microscope back in on our protagonist. Occasionally, another of Madrid's galactico stars wanders into shot - David Beckham, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo - but they, as they did in Germany, play very much second fiddle to the maestro. A few of his thoughts about football and life murmur across the soundtrack or in subtitles across the bottom of the screen. 'Magic is sometimes close to nothing at all,' says one.
A sudden and beautiful spurt of skill and power takes him past a couple of defenders and into the penalty area; he curls his wand of a foot and delivers a cross with perfect precision. Out of shot, we can hear a goal ensues. It's a moment of high drama, a climax in this unique narrative, and it stands like a chase scene or a shoot-out does in more familiar film discourses.
The sweat and the pain subside for a moment, giving way to a wide grin that fills the screen, lighting it up like Monroe used to. His brilliance has succeeded, his job has been performed, allying the destiny of the game with his own. The hugs of his team mates are the first human contact he's had, and as the frame fills with other arms, hands and smiles, at last we feel our hero is not alone.
More is to come in this game, however, more drama surrounding Zidane, as if he knows his film needs a special ending, just as he has written his own epilogue these last weeks at the World Cup. It unfolds with compelling intensity, leaving us both dazzled by human virtuosity and baffled by its frailty, pondering the workings of the body and the brain.
Of course, Zidane is a remarkable footballer and few others could have withstood the white heat of such invasive, 21st century portraiture. Other artists have focused on athletes (Garrincha: Alegria do Povo, by the great documentarist of Cinema Novo, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, pictured the Brazilian winger in his local hero element in1962, while Leni Riefenstahl's artful coverage of the Berlin Olympics is legendary) but Gordon and Parreno have surely created the best film ever made about football and one of the most illuminating cinematic studies of sport. Above all, though, they have made a poignant study of man.
Jason Solomons writes about film for the Mail on Sunday and the Observer.
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