This strange, almost other-worldly portrait of the world’s vainest-best footballer had its world premiere in London tonight (Nov 9).
Director Anthony Wonke gained remarkable access to Ronaldo***, although access in this case doesn’t necessarily equal insight. I’m not sure there’s much to see – Ronaldo does most of his talking on the pitch.
Interestingly, Douglas Gordon’s filmed portrait of another Real Madrid icon, Zidane, focused solely on that great’s work on the field of play, following him with 17 cameras for the entire 90 minutes of a league match (or nearly 90 mins, as Zizou has only went and got himself a red card near the end). But we got to learn a lot about Zidane through that.
Wonke takes a different approach. There’s actually not that much football in the final film, which may disappoint some viewers. In sleek montages, we can admire Ronaldo’s lollipops and power, his speed and balance – but no one can admire it more than he can.
What this film shows is his icy determination and ambition to win flawlessly and to be acknowledged as the best. The Ballon d’Or – awarded annually by coaches, writers and players in a poll for France Football magazine – has become an obsession and a yardstick for his rivalry with the other best player in the world, Leo Messi of Barcelona.
It’s an odd trophy to aim for, given that it is ultimately arbitrary, but Ronaldo clearly loves this gold bauble. He’s even built his own museum for it.
What is most extraordinary about this film is the constant presence of Ronaldo’s son, Cristiano Jr. Celebs are usually at pains to keep their progeny out of the spotlight yet here is a five year old thrust front and centre of this doc, doing headers and lifting weights with his Dad, watching football and begin tucked up in bed and playing “spot the missing sports car” in his Dad’s ginormous garage: “Where’s the Wamborgini?”
Given its setting in Ronaldo’s soullessly angular and see-through house in the nowhere gated communities outside Madrid, this reminds me of one of those portraits the Spanish kings used to command. The painter – your Velazquez or your Goya – sneaks in oblique comments but does enough to flatter the sitter and his weird-looking children, the Infanta and the Infante.
Ronaldo isn’t the Sun King. He’s the sun bed king. He sucks the light in and hogs it, doesn’t radiate it out. He isn’t self aware but is self-obsessed, and he has the entourage to help.
Wonke also includes the courtiers, Ronaldo’s hangers-on, his brothers, his Mum, and the chief advisor Jorge Mendes, super agent and deal maker, a man with a mobile phone seemingly glued to his hand and a flashing grin tattooed over his mouth.
Ronaldo lives on another planet, away from the world. We see very little of him with team mates. I don’t think we see him pass even once. At the World Cup with Portugal, he lives in isolation and can do nothing to haul his compatriots out of their group.
There are shafts of humour in an otherwise dourly controlled existence. A female fan in tears gets a hug. “I asked him to follow me on Twitter,” she blubs to the waiting press afterwards. We never know if he did. My bet is he’s too busy seeking affirmation on his own greatness to acknowledge anyone else’s existence.
We don’t learn much about him, this boy from Madeira who’s been playing football at the highest level since he was 12, first at Sporting Lisbon, then at Manchester United, then Real Madrid.
We’re told his Dad, due to traumas fighting in Angola, was an alcoholic who didn’t love him enough or give him enough, well, affirmation. That’s as Freudian as it gets in seeking the reasons for such steely ambition and outstanding success – but we don’t learn much about football and how to be good at it. We just learn the cold stats, the hat-trick records and the number of Ballons d’Or (still not as many as Messi by the way – the Argentinian leads that particular contest 4-3).
In a previous film, the award-winning The Tower: A Tale of Two Cities, Wonke shot a south London tower block and housing estate. Ronaldo stands as a similarly towering icon, only without the characters.
It must have been a tough job making this. The film had to be commercial and flattering because Ronaldo says it’s for his fans – but it isn’t really: you can feel the distance, the uncomfortable edge in Wonke’s approach. And it isn’t a thrill fest for footy fans – not one single shot of Ronaldo’s trademark dippy free kicks – and it isn’t a hagiography.
I can’t think his fans will love it or him and much of it is subtitled, so there’s an art-house feel to a film about a man who has, I would wager, rarely given art a single thought, yet who fancies the idea of being painted, immortalised. He doesn’t see football in artistic terms, only as a path to glory.
So fans can merely admire, like walking round one of the statues in the museum. It might be a sadder film than anyone realises, a portrait of the prime athlete at the top, the loneliness of the long distance runner and all that blah, with the sacrifices such dedication to brilliance entails. And Ronaldo is bloody good, don’t get me wrong.
But maybe that’s why he we get such access to the little boy, this weirdly motherless child whom Dad seems so keen to proffer for the cameras – he’s practically the only person he’s got to talk to. Ronaldo says he’ll never tell who the mother is. In the film, there are no suspects, no girlfriends, or even boyfriends. Actually there’s no love in this house at all, other than self-love, and no laughs and certainly no hint of what might happen were Ronaldo to stop playing football, stop winning, stop being the best.
From this secretly-haunted portrait, I worry we might find him crying alone in a corner. But I don’t worry that much.
Ronaldo is available in cinemas tonight and on DVD and on demand, all at the same time. I think…
To hear my interview with Anthony Wonke the director of Ronaldo, listen here.