Venice 2014: 'Messi' review

Messi (2014), a new film about diminutive Argentinian football icon Lionel Messi, has all the ingredients for a great sports documentary. A mass of archive material has been made available to director Álex de la Iglesia, apparently provided by Messi's constantly videotaping father, there are interviews with influential figures in the player's life including FC Barcelona team mates and ex-coaches and, last but not least, the sublime splendour of the player himself, whose speed, skill and grace see him ranked as one of - if not the - best footballers of all time. And yet Messi is a mess, with Iglesia and his contributors bundled into a restaurant, pontificating about the man over a seemingly endless dinner.

On one table, his former teachers fawn over memories of the child who wasn't very good at school work but, of course, loved to boot a ball. On another, journalists unpick some of the attributes that make Messi such a phenomenon. On another still, Johan Cruyff gives a coach's perspective. Childhood friends reminisce about his antics and what a nice guy he is. His childhood in Rosario, his loyalty to the grandmother who first got him into the beautiful game and his prodigal status despite his growth problems are all covered in a series of overlapping anecdotes. Yarns are then played out as painful 'reconstructions', the acting only just above the level of an episode of Crimewatch. It's all so stilted - "Oh, is that Johan Cruyff?", Messi's former maths teacher asks clumsily - that it could get a job in the circus.

The growth hormone treatment is gone through in detail and the early days of uncertainty at his Catalan home while the club dithered over whether to invest in such a risky and potentially expensive prospect, but this is all dull and basically well known. There's very little in the film you don't already know, if you like football and have spent some of the last ten years awake. The goals and the technique look marvellous on the big screen, but Iglesia keeps cutting back to his own biopic fragments, insisting on their relevance. There is no grit here. One of the journalists admits that Messi is an appallingly dull subject to interview - coming out with a string of platitudes - but that is basically what the film ends up being, along with some product placement for Barça's global brand.

Team mates Javier Mascherano and Gerard Piqué reveal precious little. Even when his tax affairs are mentioned, it's passed off with little more than a shrug. Leo himself doesn't participate, nor do his close family or ex-manager Pep Guardiola - another smart move. Some of the participants seem to be embarrassed by the endless lauding of the subject. One journalist even has the gall to suggest Pelé was a better player. Sadly, rather than delivering the riveting portrait of a Senna or a Zidane, Iglesia's Messi is a bungling hagiography lacking the deft touch and speed of its subject.

The 71st Venice Film Festival takes place from 27 August to 6 September 2014. For more coverage, follow this link.

John Bleasdale


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