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The Cinematic Sainthood of Diego Maradona

He was born on the outskirts of Buenos Aires in 1960, stood 5 feet, 5 inches tall beneath his exuberant mop, and became a secular saint in Italy. Unless you are yourself an acolyte of his cult, or happen to have lived in Naples in the mid-1980s, you may be unaware of the effect that Diego Maradona had when he arrived in that city to play with SCC Napoli.

The passionate relationship between a legendary soccer player and an Italian city lies at the heart of The Hand of God, the new movie from Paolo Sorrentino. The Neapolitan director is best known in the anglophone world for his lush contemplations of beauty, in The New Pope and 2013’s prize-winning La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) and the odd gem This Must Be the Place (2011), which starred Sean Penn as a middle-aged singer, strongly reminiscent of Robert Smith of The Cure, who hunts Nazis in his retirement.

The scene is the mid-1980s in Naples, when Maradona is entering the zenith of his career. Recognized for his prodigious talent at junior clubs in Argentina, Maradona started out in European club football in 1980, joining F.C. Barcelona at the age of 21. But in 1984, by then the most celebrated footballer in the world and frequently compared to Pelé, Maradona surprised everyone by leaving and going to play for SSC Napoli, a second-tier club from one of the then-poorest cities in Europe.

Napoli fans would sing, “Mamma, why does my heart beat so? Because I’ve seen Maradona, I’m in love!”

He would later say they were the only club to make him a proper offer, though they gave him a little blue Fiat instead of the Ferrari he requested. In the struggling city of Naples, stereotyped by other Italians as superstitious and controlled by the camorra, Maradona was received like a homecoming god. As one resident of the city at the time recalls, fans from the wealthier, northern city of Milan would chant “Cholerati! Terremottati!” when Naples came to play away matches—deriding the Neapolitans as cholera-sick, earthquake-ravaged. In response, Napoli fans would sing, “Mamma, why does my heart beat so? Because I’ve seen Maradona, I’m in love!”

Sorrentino himself was 16 when Maradona came to his city to play football, and a terrible tragedy befell his family. The Hand of God fictionalizes both of those real events, winnowing what must have been an overwhelming tangle of experience down into two minimal, parallel plots whose precise relationship to one another haunts our young hero, Fabietto (the sweet Filippo Scotti). More restrained and less formally expressive than Sorrentino’s previous work, The Hand of God is an unusual exercise in contrasts of scale—as the smallest moments between mother and son jostle against events with world-historical significance to the history and politics of sport.

Read entire article at The New Republic