Film Review – Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait

[july 13 – I’ve updated the information on the game played in the film. Thanks “SM”!]

I don’t normally do film reviews – so many other places provide this (for better or worse) – but I thought the following would be of interest…

When I heard that the documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait was playing a one-night show at the Bloor Cinema, I couldn’t resist getting tickets for myself, my wife, and my good friend – let’s call him “SM”.

My friend and I both work in film/TV and both are big soccer fans, so there was potentially a lot here for us to appreciate (or at least make fun of afterwards). I’d separately heard the Mogwai soundtrack beforehand and thought it was interesting – very meditative. A short synopsis on the film: it recounts French soccer star Zenedine Zidane’s club game with Real Madrid, in a match with Spanish cup rival Villareal on April 23rd, 2005.

After the screening, we stood on the street, slowly coming to the conclusion that we all had problems with the film. Yet, rather than write it off as a “bad film” and drink with purposeful abandon, we found ourselves talking about it – trying to make sense of what it was that did or didn’t work.

What follows are a set of emails I exchanged with “SM”, which I feel demonstrates better than a formal film review our thoughts on the film. I am “MC” and my wife shall be known as “G”.

From SM:

I now think that I really didn’t like the film beyond a technical
appreciation, especially for the sound design. I have slept on it and feel
fairly strongly about this.

It could be that I brought too much baggage to the film, or perhaps as
“G” suggested, it didn’t lend itself well to the theatre environment
(even if only on that day). But during the film I found myself missing the
wide screen coverage of the action at least for some sense of geography. Or perhaps more variance on the close up detail of ZZ – ie, exaggerated time stretching of actions to capture muscle tone/movement. Perhaps something to break the tedium. And that was perhaps the biggest frustration – the tedium. If the point was to study someone performing a Sisyphean task so closely that you really couldn’t tell what the task was at any given time, then that mission was accomplished. But for me it didn’t inform or entertain but left me detached, distracted and unmoved.

Also, it became a side issue to see what kind of possible image rights
issues they may have had to deal with. The animated sideboards were all in English – Kellogg’s “Frosties”, Gillette razors. In Madrid? Perhaps that is so. But it stuck in my mind. As did the peripheral existence of Michael Owen. I’m positive I saw him running on the fringes of the screen, but no image of him straight on lasted long enough for recognition, neither did his jersey name or number. But there was a lot of everyone else. And so I started to wonder, hmm, what if some players were not willing to lend their image to the film? But I don’t think I should have been thinking that. In fact I was frustrated that I was doing that. But the film left me little else to think or feel.

From MC:

I do agree with your after-sleep assessment – in particular what you wrote about rights clearances. I must admit, the exact same thing was going through my head the entire time: did they need permission from Beckham? Did they need permission to show the Frosted Flakes ad? What about Zidane’s clothing sponsorship (Adidas)? However, two questions arise from this:

1) If we’re asking ourselves those questions in the first place, is that not indicative that the film has problems?

2) Again, to take the “naive media soul” approach, would the average person ask those questions? Are we being too savvy/media-aware? Mind you, considering our tastes and how potentially this film could have catered to them, if *we* were thinking about rights clearances what the hell was the Annex chick with the $200 haircut and the flip flops focusing on (that would be the “proverbial Annex chick…” not anyone in particular)?

I must say that I would like to see it again (not soon) on home video. I think that, aesthetically speaking, it would/could be a better experience seeing it in an intimate environment.

At least we’re talking about it! Maybe the director just wanted to make something people could chat about?? Eh?

From SM:

Yeah, but the director of “The People Under The Stairs” had me talking after the film too. Just not anything I can repeat in mixed company.

The “naive media soul” might not drift to the kinds of thoughts we were (image rights) but perhaps instead might think “do I need to pick up some eggs?” or “hey I need to Lemon Pledge my tables this weekend” to help fill in the void left by watching this film

on imdb there’s two polar opposite reviews (see below)


“This is the most affecting, profound piece of documentary film I have seen in years. That said, it is a challenging work that doesn’t fully reveal it’s power until well into the viewing. As much a meditation as a film, the net effect is similar to that of watching “Winged Migration”. Watching the simple, relatively unaffected actions of Zidane over the course of a match begins to work on you. I pondered politics, commercialism, world conflict, fame, economics, the media and more over the course of my first viewing. There is no easy way to encapsulate the overall feeling, the ebbs and tides experienced while watching the film, but afterward you will view the world in as if with new eyes. It is also a masterpiece technically. I couldn’t help but admire the precise and exquisite sound design and music, how they blended to the action and psychological state being portrayed to the moment. The cameras seamlessly take the viewer from sprawling, epic points of view to the most intimate. The use of subtitle without voice over narration used to portray Zidane’s thoughts is nothing short of revolutionary. This film may disappoint a soccer fan simply seeking a piece of sports entertainment, but for a lover and student of film it is groundbreaking, important work that must be seen.”

“The guys who made this movie got it so wrong. They actually show Zidane as a tired static player and not the football god he is. Zidane is my idol for many years and what makes him a great player is: 1. his absolute vision of whats going on on the football field 2. His abilities to make the players around him better. Yes, he’s got amazing control of the ball and elegant movements that wont put to shame even a ballet dancer. But thats not it. For example, to show the amazing abilities of the conductor Zubin Mehta, you wont film him waving his hands for an hour of a silence movie. You must record his orchestra and show the connection between the conductor’s brilliance and its outcome on his “TEAM” of musicians. The same goes to Zidan. It is pretty obvious that the film makers here, do not understand football and what really made Zidane the amazing player he is. They showcase a too long, too static performance, mostly in close ups. Most of the time you don’t know where Zidane is located on the pitch, or how does he reacts to the opponents formation or plays. Sorry. Nice try but the results are poor and boring.”


The frustrating thing is, I agree and disagree with both of them. The first guy is a bit lofty with his praise, but I agree with his assessment of it being a technical masterpiece (well maybe not that high up, but you know). I don’t however think “it is groundbreaking, important work that must be seen.” I miss not really being able to see the attributes that the second reviewer describes. But I think too that it would then verge on “highlight reel” stuff.

I wondered if it would have been more engaging if this had been a vocal midfield general like Roy Keane or someone who saw more of the ball (maybe a Beckham). I really would like to hear an honest opinion of a professional footballer to this film. Not that they’re better players, but perhaps there’d be more range of emotion? And maybe that’s what I was missing. By the time Zidane’s emotions showed (smiling with Roberto Carlos, getting in the brawl), it was too late; I had stopped caring at half time.

From MC:

I fall between the two points also.

I do think there is a mantric quality to the film which, combined with the half-time segment and the sound design, provides a larger (albeit arguably more “wispy”) palette for the viewer – it becomes less about soccer and more about…well, who the fuck knows. Spin the wheel. However, this last point starts getting more into the territory of Art and Art Appreciation – the lack of a fixed message isn’t the point. However, not to let the director off the hook, I’m not entirely sure his intent was clear or if it was, whether it was achieved.

On the other hand, yes, anything else probably would’ve become a sports-porn highlight reel. I wondered if, instead of Zidane it would’ve been more effective to choose someone else – either a name or another position – but that too poses just as many problems. Zidane isn’t a Chatty Cathy and his largely mute performance works because it’s all about his focus or lack thereof. You could say the same about most goaltenders, but then again if you thought the focus on Zidane was static, imagine someone standing within two goalposts for 90m would be? Keane…that would be interesting. Certainly more dynamic, but would it have the same quiet grace and reflectiveness?

Yes – I would like to have a pro footballer’s perspective on the film. I’m hoping the Guardian or someone else thinks of this. Better still would be a moderated discussion between the director, a professional footballer, and an interviewer. Unfortunately this would only ever be shown on television in France. Still…

From SM:

Yes yes and yes.

The intention was unclear.

The quiet grace and reflectiveness works for a moment for me. But it became ironically grating over time. A shorter film would probably achieve more.
Or more accurately, if this approach were applied to a smaller scene in a film where the protagonist is followed like this in a climactic match or just an fairly important match this would be quite effective as a montage.

Reminds me, if memory serves correct, of the Raging Bull fight where LaMotta finally wins the title – the camera stays mostly on him/his face throughout the fight. But with Raging Bull, there had been a connection to the subject previous to this – mostly thanks to it being a narrative form and that the subject was an expressive actor – as well as throughout.

With the Zidane film one’s only connection was any expectations you brought to the film based on your knowledge of the subject from your reality (World Cups 98 thru 2006 etc etc). And the silent disconnect experienced here can only lead to a let down from that expectation.

Here’s the stick, you want one last go?

I decided not – I think we both had our turns at it. Yet, irregardless of whether Zidane was a success or failure, any film which can elicit these sorts of thoughts is worth a mention.


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