You may be more familiar with Zinedine Zidane than you think. In the 2006 World Cup Final -- a game the French soccer player of Algerian extraction had already announced would be his last -- he was red-carded (read: ejected) for headbutting Italy's Marco Materazzi in extra time. By all accounts the act was as justified as headbutting could be, but still: France went on to lose the match on penalty kicks. It was a baffling, somewhat ignominious end to one of the most decorated careers in the history of the sport, and the ensuing YouTube, YTMND and .gif parodies on the Internet somewhat overshadowed the fact that Zidane was awarded the Golden Ball for best player of the tournament.
A year prior, Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno filmed the documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait over the course of a single match between Zidane's Real Madrid (essentially the Yankees of soccer) and Villarreal CF. The documentary is unusual not only for the fact that its 17 cameras focus almost exclusively on Zidane at the expense of the game itself, but also for its complete lack of voice-over narration and explanatory title cards. In their place are excerpts of an interview the filmmakers conducted with Zidane, which appear onscreen at random intervals. "The game, the event, is not necessarily experienced or remembered in 'real time,'" we read. "My memories of events and games are fragmented."
Lines like this create a strange, even soothing effect that almost feels like reading Zidane's mind or an attempt at imparting to the viewer what it feels like to actually be playing in this particular game. If so, mission accomplished. Set to an instrumental score by Scottish post-rock mavens Mogwai, even the most mundane recollection takes on a special significance. A 21st Century Portrait lies somewhere in between a fairly normal documentary and an installation you'd expect to find played on a loop in an art gallery, which is another way of saying its half-week run at Cinefamily (its first ever in L.A.) starting Friday makes perfect sense.
Gordon and Parreno alternate between their own, hi-def footage of the game and its original TV broadcast with untranslated Spanish commentary. In the latter, Zidane is apparitionlike, his 6'1" stature reduced to a pixelated blur whose most distinguishing feature is an all-white uniform cast against the endless green of the pitch. What's enhanced in the former, meanwhile, isn't just the frequent look of consternation on Zidane's face but also the unremitting din of the cheering crowd, snapping cameras and referees' whistles. A 21st Century Portrait somehow manages to seem louder than an actual soccer game; for all the fuss that has sometimes been made of the film's semi-experimental approach, it is first and foremost a sensory experience that puts the viewer right on the field. In certain respects, the biggest surprise here is that the technique hasn't been used more often.
What with its occasional meandering through the stadium's empty corridors and almost anthropological depiction of Zidane and his teammates, the movie sometimes resembles an odd sort of nature documentary. But it always loops back to the man himself: Zidane wiping sweat from his forehead. Zidane looking pleased but unenthused as a teammate scores a goal in the second half. Zidane looking only slightly more enthused after making a masterful cross that leads to another goal just minutes later.
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This is a guy whose near-permanent poker face inspired not only deference but a certain degree as fear as well, even for the audience. It isn't until, as with his final game, Zidane gets red-carded and sent off the field that we have a clear visual sense of what he's thinking and feeling. Once that happens, the film ends. The rest of the game doesn't matter.
There's a term for people like Zidane: galáctico. It refers specifically to superstars snatched up from other clubs by Real Madrid for vast sums of money, with Cristiano Ronaldo being today's best-known example. (Again, think of the Yankees: Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia.) We don't learn a single biographical detail about the man by watching this documentary that bears his name, but in seeing him so close up and gaining seemingly unfettered access to his thoughts, we come to understand the actual experience of getting cheered -- and just as often booed -- by tens of thousands of people as he kicks a ball back and forth for 90 minutes.
Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait begins its half-week run at Cinefamily on Friday, July 13.