Becoming Zlatan

***1/2

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Becoming Zlatan
"It isn't doing anything new, but it does do it well, and entertainingly."

Zlatan is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a footballer, but more than that, a striker, a power forward whose bulk belies balletic ball-control, a deftness on the pitch that could be described as mercurial - hard to contain, hard to control, even dangerous.

Grounded in archive footage from his professional debut at Malmo FF, and their almost immediate relegation, campaign for promotion, and then his progress to Ajax to one of the peaks of world football, Serie A's Juventus, this is a story that flashes back and forth and through interviews with friends, fellow players, former managers, found footage of fearsome press criticism, footballing rivals, and every once in a while flashes, footwork, fantastic displays of ability.

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The scope of the film is relatively small - it mentions his childhood, his family, his personal life, but the focus is Zlatan's professional career, one that has moved on from Juventus, but not that we'd see here. It's recently been announced that he is retiring from international duties for Sweden, but that's too new to be in the film - indeed, the announcement came between your reviewer seeing Becoming Zlatan at Edinburgh's International Film Festival and getting back to a laptop to review it. The timing then, is a little unusual as well - but that's perhaps ancillary to this film of Fredrik and Magnus Gertten.

Zlatan himself comes across well - undoubtedly guilty of a number of footballing infractions, the film does well to explain, if not excuse, them. He's clearly regarded by both colleagues and opponents and supporters (both of his teams and others) with no small measure of affection, and this is clear in the film.

Clearer still are the goals - Becoming Zlatan may not be the most penetrating documentary ever assembled but it stands no chance in comparison to its subject's ability to cut through another team. It also explores his own struggles with that talent, with his ability to harness that power, to direct it, and to achieve with it.

Football and the big screen have not always have the best relationship. Though it can be an opportunity for depth and detail (Bend It Like Beckham) it can also be a painful exercise in seeming cynicism (Escape To Victory). Zlatan tends more closely to the former. Though it lacks the forensic detail of Zidane, it does contain revealing interviews, eye-opening insights into the conflicts in dressing rooms and on pitches, and even a lesson in hubris.

There is another advantage to that large canvas, however, and that is clarity - the lifts, step-overs, turns, twists and thundering volleys are bigger than life size in the cinema, the expressions on the faces of the fans, on team-mates, on opponents say as much as the sweep of those boots, the construction of goals - and what goals!

As a portrait of an individual's career and talent it's successful, but it is a narrow focus. It's well paced, cycling back in forth through his club career (at least as far as Juventus) to explore aspects of his personality, his personal development, his development as a footballer. It mentions transfer fees and the business of Association Football but it does assume an awareness of at least the outlines of Bosman, the pan-European transfer market, the monies that became available to clubs as a consequence of European competition both on the pitch and in the air waves. It has some striking footage - in particular a piece to camera from early in Zlatan's time at Ajax - and enough footballing action to hold interest between the more contemplative sections.

This is a film that can and should be commended to fans of football - timely as Sweden are due to play Belgium in Euro 2016 just two days before the film's UK release - and given Zlatan's involvement in Swedish, Dutch, Italian, and French football (with rumours of a Premiership place somewhat checked by a youthful Zlatan's description of the English league) he's interacted (often muscularly) with dozens of footballing nations, in all manner of competitions. Often funny, occasionally dramatic, it probably has enough to satisfy audiences who are not already aware of Zlatan, but it's hard to determine a litmus test for this - perhaps it's as simple as asking if you would watch a match that featured two teams you do not support - if your interest in football is sufficient that the efforts of 22 players to whom you hold no affiliation is enough to hold your attention for a couple of hours, then Becoming Zlatan's focus on one should do so as well. It isn't doing anything new, but it does do it well, and entertainingly - it might be unfair to say it's like its subject in that respect, but it takes a much less maze-y run to its conclusion and the end result will be as satisfying to some audiences as any of Zlatan's goals.

Reviewed on: 22 Jun 2016
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Documentary about Swedish football player Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
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