Directed by Frédéric Auburtin
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Do you like football? Do you like films? Do you like pleasant-faced everyman Sam Neill and loveable rogue Tim Roth and Gallic live wire Gérard Depardieu?
We all did, but those were simpler times.
In the happy days gone by, Depardieu didn’t live in (2018 World Cup host nation) Russia and he had yet to purge himself of the sins of his wicked past by enjoying the ‘purifying’ air of Europe’s most homophobic state. And football’s governing body, FIFA, was merely a metaphorical bloated tick with a gutsful of blood, rather than a body quite literally subsisting on the blood of indentured workers in Qatar building the infrastructure for its showpiece festival of goal-less group-stage draws and Castrol adverts.
But we live in our moment, and Frédéric Auburtin’s hagiography of FIFA, United Passions, is a film for this moment. You may have read that Auburtin called his own film a ‘mess,’ a ‘disaster,’ and a cross between ‘a Disney propaganda film and a Costa-Gavras/Michael Moore movie,’ but he is just being modest.
It is far worse than that. It is the inevitable, sordid union of epic poetry and promoted content. It is the spawn of a plutocratic leadership cult and one of those dickheads who un-ironically talks about his ‘brand.’ It is the Odyssey crossed with a McDonald’s commercial of children rapping the alphabet. It is Beowulf lopping off Grendel’s head and bellowing primally: ‘Visa: It’s Everywhere You Want to Be!®’
This sport-focussed Triumph of the Will follows the careers of three of FIFA’s ‘greatest’ figures—Jules Rimet (Depardieu), João Havelange (Neill), and Sepp Blatter (Roth)—as they make the beautiful game obscene. Rimet loves to found things: he founds Paris club Red Star (in the film, renamed Gazprom Rovers for sponsorship reasons) in 1897, he founds FIFA in 1904, and he magicks the first World Cup out of the air in 1930. Depardieu’s great moment in the role comes at the conclusion of the 1950 World Cup final between Brazil and Uruguay (played at the Budweiser Maracanã) when, ecstatic at the spectacle of 173,000 distraught Brazilians weeping over o jogo bonito, he shrieks over the tannoy:
Gisele Bündchen, Oscar Niemeyer, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Princess Isabel, João Gilberto, Sivuca, Ayrton Senna—we have beaten them all, we have beaten them all! Eurico Dutra, can you hear me? Eurico Dutra, your boys took a hell of a beating! Your boys took a hell of a beating!
If only the film was made up entirely of such moments.
Neill as Havelange spends the entirety of his on-screen time swanning around in a dressing gown on the phone in front of the Sugarloaf in Rio. (Hey, that’s what people did in the seventies.) The Havelange subplot is all about how he came by his famous, colourful nickname: ‘Adidas.’
But the stories of Rimet and Havelange are mere preamble for the ascent to godhead of Sepp Blatter. As played by Roth, Blatter laughs like Buddha, sermonises like Jesus, and smites like the God of the Old Testament killing Uzzah because he tries to steady the Ark of the Covenant as it wobbles on an oxcart.
Blatter alternately pursues vendettas and greases palms. A five-minute scene of the crowd laughing after Frank Lampard’s 38th minute goal was not allowed in England’s round-of-sixteen match against Germany in the 2010 World Cup was obviously included as a cruel reminder of how FIFA feels about England. On the other hand, as envelopes stuffed with $50,000 each are distributed to African FA heads at the Méridien Montparnasse hotel in Paris in 1998, ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head’ plays merrily and Blatter beams, looking for all the world like a young sun.
The film emphasises Blatter’s unshakeable contentedness in its climax. When awarding the 2018 and 2022 World Cups at a meeting in Zurich in December of 2010, Blatter quotes Satan’s most famous speech from Book I of Paradise Lost to the amazed delegates:
Farewell, happy fields,
Where joy for ever dwells! Hail, horrors! hail,
Infernal world! and thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor—one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure; and, in my choice,
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.
It is hard to believe that a film this singularly rotten earned a record-low $918 at the box office in the U.S. (Am I the first to observe that the phrase ‘United Passions 918’ sounds like a doomed flight number?) It’s almost enough to restore your faith in humanity. Maybe people don’t want to pay to see shit. Maybe the public can’t be bought off by huge international organisations and their corporate backers. Maybe the underdog can prevail after all! Maybe New Zealand can win the next World Cup!
+ + +
What else is there to say? Unfortunately for the English language, the film is in English. Fortunately for the hard-of-hearing, it is a talkie. Fortunately for Americans, at least, it is now out of the cinemas. And fortunately for posterity, it is available on DVD in France.
[A note about the five-star rating: they replaced the World Cup Trophy with a human skull on a plinth spray-painted gold, so full marks for honesty.]