There is a majesty to soccer that fans of the sport can find in all but the most pedestrian games; a grace and dignity to the flow and shape of the game, the discovery of which can spark a life-long obsession. Within the sport itself, there are certain players who embody those traits, through their styles of play and the way they carry themselves. These are not necessarily the greatest players -- as great as they are, Luis Figo, Andrei Shevchenko and Ronaldinho don't have the presence I'm talking about -- but when you see them play, you recognize the spark immediately. Italian icon Paolo Maldini has it. And, French god Zinédine Zidane, despite -- or maybe because of -- his ever-present temper -- has it too. There's an economy to his movements and an easy, natural poise to the way he watches the pitch that sets him apart from others, and makes it impossible to keep your eyes off him, despite his deceptively simple style of play.
In April, 2005, video artists Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno went a step further, training 17 cameras on Zidane for the length of a single La Liga game. The cameras were scattered all over the stadium, and recorded images ranging from intimate close-ups to beautiful long shots that take in the whole pitch; from unfocused collections of colors to more traditional, television-style action shots. Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait is the 90-minute compilation of those images and, for lovers of the game, it's awe-inspiring. More an art film that a sports documentary, Zidane is something that must be experienced on the big screen.
The movie is difficult to describe, because it's a feeling as much as anything else. Compiled from a dizzying array of cameras, angles and footage sources, the movie's only constant is that, during the game, Zidane is always on screen. The only exceptions are a few replays, but for the most part he is our focus, not the game. So when the action is taking place in the Real Madrid end, we stay with Zidane. He wipes his face, taps his toes, stalks the pitch. Away from the ball, he's relaxed, but not really -- there's a coiled strength in him, always, and when he explodes into action it takes your breath away. Even at the end of his career, Zidane's power and pace are breath-taking, particularly when we've been isolated with him, watching, away from the speed of the game.
Even when Zidane is the not the exclusive focus of what we see, there's something about him that has always drawn the eye. He's brutishly, powerfully handsome, and his low brows give his already intense eyes an added, intimidating power. And even seen from afar, when he's nothing more than a white jersey and a mostly bald head, we can pick him out with ease. Unlike everyone around him, Zidane plays with his back straight, and his shoulders back. His posture sets him apart, as does the simplicity of his movements. When he runs, there's a relief and joy to it, as if his body has finally been released to serve its true purpose. Other players -- David Beckham, for example, and Wayne Rooney -- run with a strange, barely contained fury; there's a sense that they're battling not only those around them, but their bodies as well. With Zidane, there's an almost laughable peace that comes when he's finally allowed to run; the ease of his pace and efficiency of his movements make us instantly aware that we're watching something special.
In Zidane, all of these glorious moments are held together by a carefully wrought, virtually perfect soundtrack. The audio in the film is a combination of diegetic sound -- crowd nose, shoes on grass, shouts, the impact of bodies -- and a phenomenal, hypnotic score, created by the Scottish band Mogwai. Though the on-pitch sounds were all created after shooting, they remain utterly realistic, and it's strangely moving to hear the level and clarity of the sounds change as Zidane himself moves in and out of the game. At times, there's total, pure silence; at others, the noise of 80,000 fans is almost deafening. As the game progress and Zidane's focus increases, the score begins to rise, suggesting the player's growing distance from the world around him. There's a wonderful, melancholy feel to Mogwai's dreamy music that adds to the film's emotional impact; there's no doubt the work as a whole would be less coherent without their contribution.
Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait washes over the audience in a combination of light, sound and emotion, somehow encapsulating everything that is great about soccer into a single man, in a single game. If you don't love the game, stay far away. If, however, you're one of the people for whom soccer is a fact of life, do everything you can to see this movie: It's both a revelation and a simple confirmation of everything you've ever believed, and an incredibly powerful, deeply emotional experience.