Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait documents one of modern football’s finest players during the course of a match between Real Madrid and Villareal on April 23, 2005. Using 17 cameras, all trained on the title character, the film documents literally every movement Zinedine Zidane makes for 90 minutes. The result is an extremely compelling film, documenting the personality and skill of an athlete in ways a painter or photographer could not, and making a compelling argument for the importance of context in any form of communication.
Gordon Douglas and Philippe Parreno have presented the viewer with a look into the personality and presence of an extraordinary talent at the twilight of his career. Zidane’s last year with Real Madrid was hampered by injuries but no trace of them appear in this film. Zidane stalks the pitch dominantly, looking every bit the hunter in search of prey. Like a cheetah waiting for the right moment to strike, he spots openings and in several quick strides pounces on the ball.
As the film wears on, the viewer starts to see patterns; he continually drags his right cleat and never smiles, not even with teammates. Nothing registers on his face when Villareal scores, and there is no celebration when he aides in scoring both of the goals by Real Madrid. Zidane is the portrait of a man who is intensely focused on what he is doing; he is watching the flow of the game, monitoring the ball. His eyes are often hidden in shadow but the viewer can feel them searching relentlessly for the opportunity.
While it is Zidane’s focus, for the viewer, the flow of the game is completely non-existent. The ball enters and exits the screen like a character and the camera shrinks the depth of the field which makes following the game in a conventional sense all but impossible. We rarely see Zidane’s teammates, so much so that it comes as a surprise when David Beckham appears in the second half scoring a goal for Real Madrid.
The score, provided by Scottish band Mogwai is superb and sometimes haunting. Focused more on the quiet side of the Mogwai spectrum, the music swells and falls with the chants of the fans and the occasional announcer commentary. The three dimensional sound mix in the theatre is superb an places the viewer in the place on the pitch with whistles, cleats thudding, and sparse dialog between players swirling around.
In the film’s defining moment, Zidane beats three defenders in a stunning display of skill and crosses the ball to a waiting teammate who heads in a goal. The slow motion replay of this moment reveals Zidane as a master of control. His command of body and ball is reminiscent of Hans Namuth’s documentary footage of Jackson Pollock painting; the sense of purpose, concentration, and economy of motion are astounding in both.
More importantly, because the camera is focused so tightly on Zidane and does not follow the ball as he crosses it, the viewer does not even realize he is close to the goal, much less that he has contributed to scoring. In this way, the film is not about the match or the result, but is a portrait of a man alternately divorced from and placed in context. These crucial moments, when the camera gives us the information we need to understand Zidane’s role in the game seem to illustrate a larger point; all information comes with context and communicating the context is as important as the information itself.