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Movie Review

A heady look at a soccer tough guy

Zinedine Zidan Seventeen cameras were trained on Zinedine Zidane during a 2005 match to make the film. (Katapult films)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / May 4, 2007
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An estimated 280 million people watched as Zinedine Zidane head-butted Italy's Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final. Italy won the match, but the actual outcome almost seemed immaterial once Zidane had struck his blow. That was the decisive moment, an instant of global indelibility.

Nothing even remotely as dramatic takes place in "Zidane: A 21st-Century Portrait," the alternately hypnotic and irksome documentary that shows at the Institute for Contemporary Art tomorrow and Thursday.

The film records a soccer match between Real Madrid and Villarreal on April 23, 2005, which Real Madrid won handily. The outcome is irrelevant, though. The game had no interest for the directors, Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno . One player did. They trained 17 cameras on Zidane, playing for Real Madrid, and followed him throughout the game.

We watch almost entirely in real time. The game is observable only insofar as it swirls around Zidane. Reggie Jackson famously described himself as the straw that stirs the drink. Zidane is straw as drink. He's seen on a monitor, in long shot, medium shot, tracking shot -- and most often in close-up, not just of his face, but also legs, arms, trunk.

A paradox defines "Zidane": On screen, he stands outside of time -- even as on the pitch time shapes his every move. He also seems to stand outside of feeling. Emotion is, at best, a distraction, and he displays a monumental impassivity. He shows not a flicker of reaction when he sets up a goal with a magnificent pass. He's so self-contained that it makes the memory of his acte gratuit all the most astounding, an instant of pure, unmediated impulse. Conversely, when he and his teammate Ronaldo share a grin it's as lovely as when "The Wizard of Oz " breaks into color.

That grin is also a bit unnerving. Zidane's hard, intemperate eyes are supremely watchful. Grins seem alien on this face. Intentness is all. He exhibits an arrested ferocity, always on the verge of being unleashed (just ask Materrazi).

Part of the great fascination of "Zidane" is its demonstrating that action is not necessarily the same as motion. There's surprisingly little of the former. The latter is almost constant. Zidane never entirely stops. A wrist bounces, a sleeve flutters. He elbows an opponent. He spits (fairly often). He confronts an official over a bad call. Most of the time, he's just bouncing on his feet, ready at any moment to explode.

There's little that's fluid about Zidane's movements. His element isn't water or air or fire, but earth, solid and unyielding. The joyful flow of a Ronaldhino , the matinee-idol swagger of a David Beckham (a Real Madrid teammate -- we briefly glimpse him and Zidane together, like gods greeting one another on Olympus), are nowhere evident.

For long stretches, one can lose oneself, mesmerized, as Zidane fills the screen, patrolling his sea of green. Then the self-awareness of the filmmakers will intrude -- a jarring shift in sound, a self-consciously abrupt shift in perspective -- and the trance-spell is broken. Worst of all, to fill halftime, there's a montage of that day's other events (a flood in Montenegro, a marathon reading of "Don Quixote," a car bombing in Iraq).

The transfixing, dreamlike beauty "Zidane" has during long takes gets squandered again and again. One trembles to think what a Max Ophuls or Theo Angelopoulos might have done with this.

Or Jean-Pierre Melville . Zidane can be seen as the ultimate Melville hero, one of his existential tough guys, superbly inward and immeasurably apart. It's just that instead of a revolver or automatic Zidane's preferred weapon is his feet -- and head.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

ZIDANE: A 21ST-CENTURY PORTRAIT

Directed by: Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno

At: Museum of Fine Arts, today and various dates through April 18

Running time: 90 minutes

Unrated

Zidane: A 21st-Century Portrait

Directed by: Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno

At: Institute of Contemporary Art, Sunday at 11 a.m., Thursday at 7 p.m.

Running time: 90 minutes

Unrated