Andrea Arcangeli plays Roberto Baggio in the Netflix Original film, released on the OTT platform on May 26, 2021. (Screen grab)
Italian footballer Roberto Baggio wore a ponytail for most of his adult life. The title of a new Netflix documentary about him, Baggio: The Divine Ponytail, references both the hairdo and Baggio’s famous adherence to Buddhism. Indeed during his illustrious career, Baggio was often referred to as the one with ‘the divine ponytail’.
Much of the new documentary is centred on Baggio’s inability to score a crucial penalty against Brazil in the final of the 1994 World Cup. He shoots too high, and cannot sleep for years afterwards because of this failure. Even the kind words of his wife do not console him.
Director Letizia Lamartire had a wealth of material to develop a hard-hitting picture, but he seems to have sidestepped this opportunity. The film crawls on at a snail’s speed without giving importance to either character or drama.
Additionally, the events that are part of the screenplay lack direction – which makes the whole fare pretty lukewarm. The movie begins with a shot of a crucial penalty kick even as it cuts back and forth to a young Baggio practising against a glassed door. Later, we are told about Baggio’s success in his late teens and his incredibly close-knit family. However, the way the relationships are shown is a drag. We are told about the beginning of Baggio’s strained ties with his father, a continuing theme in this Netflix Original film.
Andrea Arcangeli plays Baggio with gaunt eyes and a grim face. He seldom smiles, but is seen laughing with his agent and manager, whom he considers his friend. Thomas Trabacchi plays the manager (Vittorio Petrone) with great sincerity. His supporting role is one of the high points of the movie.
It’s not as if the film gets us to emotionally invest in it. The scenes showing Baggio’s love for Andreina (Valentina Bellé) are few and far between. My gripe is not that the scenes were kept to a minimum, it is that they don’t work at all. The director seems content to tell us that Belle played a crucial role in Baggio’s life. The scene in which she first understands Baggio’s conversion to Buddhism is criminally subdued and fails to register a blip.
There is another scene – one of the early ones – weighed down by its heavy metaphor. Unable to kick-start a moped, Belle hands it to Baggio, who doesn’t give up until the two-wheeler fires up. “You have to insist,” says Baggio – and somehow everything is wrong with the moment.
In another early scene, Baggio comes down on the field with crippling knee pain. He is hospitalised, and the surgery is successful, but only after 220 stitches are done on his right knee. Baggio’s bravery in fighting this setback comes through, but even here the director fails to make an impact.
In fact, many of Baggio’s injuries and his arduous struggle against them is something the director dips into again and again. But without enough emotion to back these scenes, they come out bland and dry.
The film keeps jumping, quite uncomfortably, between events on and off the field. Without thematic support, the film is never able to strike much rhythm or rhyme. This makes us think that the film would be much more interesting if told chronologically. In addition to this, the director throws at the picture every sports cliché you can think of, and none of them works.
The film also captures Baggio’s uneasy relationship with his coaches, especially Arrigo Sacchi. The player and the coach are shown to be at loggerheads. Is this because Baggio considered the coach a father figure and therefore expected too much of him? Hints are later dropped to this effect, but one is never sure.
Considering that football is arguably the world’s most popular sport, director Lamartire could have put in a lot more effort.
The writing of the movie is also uneven, which is further let down by some drab acting.
One of the aspects that works in Baggio: The Divine Ponytail is the Buddhism bit. Baggio was a devout Buddhist, and converted early to the religion. His devotion is shown to have helped him in his career as a footballer, and also in making him a better human being.
The screenplay by Ludovica Rampoldi and Stefano Sardo is a bumpy ride. Their decision to end the film at a fuel outlet instead of at a match is baffling. And, to boot, the emotion just doesn’t come through when the crowd gathers to cheer Baggio, even though he is not selected for the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
At times, it feels as if football itself is perfunctory in this film. This rushed screenplay doesn’t want to deliver the football highlights but capture the man behind the persona. Suffice it to say that it fails miserably.