It’s the off-season, so it seems like a good time to take a look at the documentary Messi, directed by Alex de la Iglesia. This movie is from 2014, but, since it doesn’t really follow his career on a year-by-year basis, it’s not really out of date.
De la Iglesia is a renowned Spanish filmmaker, who often films dark and mysterious movies that have been compared to Guillermo del Toro’s work. Needless to say, this is a change.
Curiously, the film is written by Jorge Valdano, an Argentine but also a former Real Madrid player and manager.
The movie has a very interesting concept that makes it stand out from your average documentary. It unites several important figures from very diverse backgrounds together in one restaurant, where each table has revealing conversations about the Argentine star.
At one table you have Messi’s friends and former teammates from Rosario, at another you have his national team manager Alejandro Sabella and other important Argentine figures, at another his Barcelona teammates Javier Mascherano, Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta, and Jose Manuel Pinto.
There’s Spanish, Argentine and Catalan journalists. There’s former youth team coaches at Newell’s Old Boys, Barcelona, and Argentina. Even Diego Schwarzstein, the doctor who treated his growth problem when he was little, is at a table. And most notably, Valdano, Cesar Luis Menotti, and especially the late Johann Cruyff make an appearance.
The discussions these people have lead the narrative, with no narrator necessary. Instead, ample footage of Messi as a kid and later as an adult is used. Messi himself is not interviewed, you only hear his voice in archival interviews.
To flesh out the story, De la Iglesia uses dramatic reenactments with actors portraying the Messi family and other people. Often, the actor who plays Jorge Messi will get out his camcorder, and the movie will cut to real footage of an impish child skipping past defenders. This unusual technique is done very well.
If you haven’t seen footage of Messi as a kid, you’re in for a treat, as there’s plenty of it. There’s even video of him as snail in a school play and him during a class trip. It’s pretty adorable.
The story is a good one but one that most Barcelona fans know by heart. It chronicles his legendary exploits as a youth player in Rosario, his struggles with his growth condition, his father’s desperate move to Barcelona, and so on. Still, for the uninitiated, it’s a great way to get up to speed.
It’s after the movie gets Messi to break into the first team that it loses a bit of steam. We don’t follow Messi’s achievements through the years, winning the Champions League twice at that point is not really mentioned, just hinted at.
The film would have made for a much cleaner narrative had Messi won the World Cup, and one wonders if the filmmaker did not in some way plan for that to happen. Of course, it didn’t, which means the narrative stops being chronological and becomes freeform. That leads to lengthy discussions about the national team and Messi’s role in it, which leads to extensive comparisons between Messi and Diego Maradona.
While hearing these important people in his life discuss all this is interesting, it’s a little meandering and I imagine the average person will have less interest for that than the more straightforward first half of the film.
For those who care, it’s a treat, though. There’s a point in the film in which an Argentine teacher who taught Messi mentions she admires Sabella, only for another teacher to say “he’s over there, sitting at that table.” That kind of underscores why this set up is so effective, you feel like you’ve wandered into about 10 amazing conversations.
Menotti is often the voice of opposition, his opinion that Pele is the greatest ever might infuriate Messi fans, but at least he provides a counterpoint. Too often a film like this can lead to just an echo chamber of “isn’t he awesome” which, while obviously justified in a lot of ways, can be a bit less eye-opening.
Of course, the person you’ll really want to hear is Cruyff, and not just because he’s unfortunately since passed. Not only does he perceive the game in a way that almost no one else does, he articulates it quite well in his Dutch-accented Spanish.
Perhaps the biggest miss here is either Frank Rijkaard or especially Pep Guardiola. Of course, someone like Ronaldinho, Carles Puyol, Xavi or Dani Alves would have been amazing, too. That might be nitpicking, though.
One thing you won’t exactly get is who Messi is as a person. He’s still an enigma. A character study this movie is not. We only get glimpses of his personality: his extreme shyness, his penchant for practical jokes, and his competitiveness (a friend mentions any time he was getting beaten on FIFA, Messi would simply shut off the Playstation.)
Overall, this documentary stands out for the way it’s constructed and how well its shot and edited, even if, perhaps, the second half of the film meanders too much for people less interested in football discussion and more interested in an interesting narrative.