The generally acknowledged greatest soccer player of his generation, Zinedine Zidane, (ZIN-uh-deen zee-DAN) was the master of the midfield; a player of uncommon instinct, vision and grace. A solid but not prolific goal scorer, he led his club teams to three European Championship games, (winning one) and his national team to two World Cup finals (winning one) and one Euro Cup championship with his ability to orchestrate the midfield. But he was also known for his temper. Among other incidents, he was suspended for one game in the 1998 World Cup for stomping on an opposing player with his cleats, and he ended his career with a head butt to the chest of an Italian defender in the World Cup final, an incident which contributed to France’s eventual loss.
On April 23rd, 2005, Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno realized a most unique cinematic experiment. Placing 17 high definition cameras in Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, the home of Zidane’s last club side, Real Madrid, the directors and their crew recorded Zidane from multiple angles for the entirety of his match against fellow Spanish side Villarreal. The result is a fascinating and rare perspective on a soccer game, as the cameras never stray from Zidane, whether he has the ball or not. Only a handful of times do they show a bit from the regular broadcast, such as when a goal is scored. The other 99% of the time, we are focused on Zidane.
A viewer’s impression of the piece is going to be influenced by a number of factors: his taste for soccer, his affinity for Zidane and/or Real Madrid, his experience with Spain in general. But whether one is entertained or bored by this very singular opus, one simply must acknowledge the artistry with which it was crafted. As a Real Madrid fan who once lived in Madrid, I was also captivated by it.
The first few minutes of the film are frustrating. Being used to following the ball when watching a soccer match, I found it initially irritating when the ball moved on and we were left looking at Zidane, who is not so handsome that I would wish to miss the action to watch him trot to a different position away from play. But upon accustoming myself to what the film was and accepting it as such, I found myself very much drawn into the project.
The principle challenge of the film is a challenge that every director faces with any scene but writ very, very large. To wit: do not fall into a tedious rut and bore the audience. In an extended conversation between two characters, for instance, it is the simplest thing in the world to switch back and forth between opposing over-the-shoulder shots as the characters speak. But a good director will find ways to punctuate the scene to keep our interest. Since Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait is essentially two scenes separated by a brief pause at half time, it could well be that no director has ever had to contend with such an overwhelmingly large version of this common difficulty.
By this measuring stick, Gordon and Parreno must be accounted good directors (and Herv© Schneid a good editor), because they use all kinds of unique perspectives of both visuals and sound to keep us interested in the action. On the visual side, we are given just about every perspective possible save for a shot from the Good Year blimp. There are close-ups of Zidane’s magical feet clad in his black cleats, there are close-ups of his face, there are long shots, medium shots, shots of the monitors on the television cameras. .. it’s a real time experience, so they don’t mess with slow motion, but as far as camera angles go, they got it pretty well covered.
The movie is also a delight for the ears. Their sensitive equipment was able to capture the smallest of sounds, such as Zidane blowing the sweat off his nose, or the sound of the ball scraping against the net after a penalty kick. These quiet and intimate small moments are juxtaposed with the sudden overwhelming fury of the Bernabeu crowd yelling and screaming and singing their support for their side. Also contributing to the auditory feast is an entrancing soundtrack by Mogwai. These numerous perspectives and elements provide for a variety of possible combinations.
It’s difficult to criticize such an undertaking, but if the movie were to be improved it would be with even more careful thought to the editing process. There are moments when the decisions made by the editor make immediate sense as they aid in the presentation of the subject. For instance, the music is often used to presage an important event, such as near the end when the sound track grows louder and more intense by degrees until an eruption on the field is realized. But there are also times when the decisions seem random, as if they were changing sound or angle simply because it was time for a change. Again, I don’t want to be too critical, but no endeavor has ever left zero room for improvement. A bit more thought about the editing than was already spent on the project could help it even more.
Another consideration, and one that might have attenuated the aforementioned difficulty, would be to make it just a bit less Zidane centered. There are a few shots of the stairways and vomitorios of Bernabeu Stadium, and at halftime there is a quick recap of what was going on in the rest of the world that day (including a picture in war torn Iraq of a young boy wearing a Zidane jersey), and an occasional cut to television coverage to show the Real Madrid goals, but that is it. Perhaps it would have been helpful to get shots of the fans as they reacted to Zidane’s actions on the field, or other things of that nature. It would not have made it any less about Zidane, even with the cameras off him for just a moment. After all, David Fincher, in his wonderful Fight Club, often cuts away from the more extreme violence to show us the reactions of those witnessing it, but the scene is inexorably still about the violence. A similar approach to Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait would have been useful both as a way to enlarge the realm of the experience and also as a means of giving the editor more to work with.
These little suggestions aside, the project was skillfully realized, and so perhaps it is fitting that it was rewarded with a stroke of luck: the match between Real Madrid and Villarreal on that day was a microcosm of Zidane’s career. It saw him responding to adversity on the field as he was famous for doing, taking it upon himself to alter the tide in response to a deficit at halftime. But it also saw the uglier side of Zidane, a side so many saw when he was expelled from the pitch during his final match as a professional. There is no way to script something like that; it’s just a bit of luck that the filmmakers richly deserved.