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Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait

by Tim Yu
on 05 November 2008

Those looking for a highlight reel of soccer trickery or an artful abstraction of a star athlete were most likely dissapointed by the recent documentary "Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait." But the balance of action highlighting Zidane's skill, coupled with a more avant-garde approach to storytelling made for a hypnotically intimate look at one of the world's most talented athletes of our time. The work of filmmakers Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordon, "Zidane" premiered to much international acclaim a while back. I only got the chance to see it during its recent run at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn, NY. I'd been waiting to see the film for a long time and I'm glad to say it didn't disappoint.

Shot in HD and 35mm film, 17 cameras in total focused solely on the Algerian-born Parisian for the full 90-minute match between Real Madrid and Villareal on 23 April 2005. A soundtrack by Mogwai adds a subtle but important effect with their moody droning rock. More visual observation than documentary, it is as much a portrait of time as it is about Zidane. The film opens by asking "23 April 2005, an ordinary day, will events be remembered or forgotten?"

Mixing in different types of shots, including replays on a television, tight shots on certain body parts, views from stadium seating—lending a sense of scale—and dynamic editing helps to form a vision of Zidane. At one point the camera zooms so closely in on a television that a blur of colors and pixels is almost an optical illusion.

Sound design also plays a major role and is one of the strongest elements of the film. Captivating edits like Zidane's foot tapping and strategic communication punctuate the narrative, drawing the viewer inside Zidane's head when all is quiet except his breath or overwhelming with the sound of the crowd to create a sense of the magnitude of the environment.


For fans of the beautiful game, the film offers a new point of view of soccer that TV coverage misses. Although Zidane remains seemingly emotionless for most of the match (including after a goal that he fantastically creates for Ronaldo), to perceive the game through his eyes is an enlightening experience. Closely cropped shots of Zidane make it hard to follow the actual game but it's fun to try and gain clues through his positioning on the pitch through field lines and teammates.

This sustained focus on Zidane gives another level of insight into the man. You learn of his ticks—he consistently taps his toes on the turf mid stride, a reflexive gesture that most likely maintains placement of his foot in the boot to ensure a consistent touch on the ball—and tendencies while observing his fluid style of play. You'll notice that he doesn't run all that often, although he looks more natural at a jog than walk, but his game is much more cerebral, always surveying the field, anticipating ball movement and positioning himself accordingly long before others have caught onto the direction of play. Once he does receive the ball however, there are few that can turn it on as quickly and creatively. It's rare when something good doesn't come out of his decisions and actions.

Other insights into Zidane come through a few quotes selectively dispersed throughout the film—in French with English subtitles. Zidane comments, "The Game, the event, is not necessarily experienced or remembered in 'real time.' My memories of the game and events are fragmented." Zidane goes on to close the movie with "Magic is sometimes very close to nothing at all."

Whether it's the soccer or the artistic visual portraiture, "Zidane" is worth seeing for either or both qualities. Amazon, but I strongly urge you see it on a big screen if possible. Check out the trailer above.

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