Italian portrays Maradona's "nine lives" in biopic

ROME, March 27 Tue Mar 27, 2007 4:27pm EDT

Actor Marco Leonardi (L), who plays Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona in the feature film ''Maradona, The Hand of God'', poses with director Marco Risi in a photo released by the film's production company in Rome March 27, 2007. The film premieres in Italy this week. REUTERS/Studio Lucherini Pignatelli Russo

Actor Marco Leonardi (L), who plays Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona in the feature film ''Maradona, The Hand of God'', poses with director Marco Risi in a photo released by the film's production company in Rome March 27, 2007. The film premieres in Italy this week.

Credit: Reuters/Studio Lucherini Pignatelli Russo

ROME, March 27 (Reuters Life!) - A new movie about Diego Maradona tells a story the director says has never been heard about the soccer legend: as a boy he fell into a well while playing football and was pulled out by his mop of curly black hair.

"Naturally, he still had his football in his hands," Marco Risi, whose movie "Maradona, the Hand of God" premieres in Italy this week, told Reuters in an interview in Rome.

The Italian director expresses unabashed admiration for the Argentine idol, who since retiring in 1997 has battled with cocaine addiction and weight problems, but is now slimmer after a stomach-stapling operation and no longer addicted to drugs.

Risi said the hero of Argentina's 1986 World Cup victory seems to have "nine lives, like a cat".

The film ends with a bloated Maradona still hooked on drugs and strapped to a bed in mental ward. But before the titles roll a footnote appears saying Maradona has "returned to normal life and has not lost his will to fight against injustice".

Risi is in no doubt whether the infamous 1986 quarter final goal against England, which outraged England fans but Maradona later ascribed to "the hand of God", was legitimate or not.

"If Maradona had stopped just with that goal with his hand, I would have been against him because I don't like people who cheat in sport," Risi said.

"But then he scored the second goal which showed his class. As a gesture toward the English it was almost artistic," said Risi of Maradona's epic weave through England's defense.

The movie, which coincides with a documentary on Maradona by the Emir Kusturica, concentrates on Maradona off the pitch.

It recounts his slum childhood, his doting mother Tota and long-suffering wife Claudia, and his stormy friendship with his manager Guillermo Coppola, whom many Argentines blame for his addiction and financial problems.

SELF-DESTRUCT

In a movie shot largely on location in Buenos Aires, with many Argentines in the cast, the adult Maradona is played by Italian "Cinema Paradiso" star Marco Leonardi, also known for "Like Water for Chocolate" and "Once Upon a Time in Mexico".

Risi, son of director Dino Risi, is known in Italy for gritty movies dealing with crime while his top international credit is as producer of "Hamam", set in a Turkish bath.

He talked to Maradona and his family about the movie but says he pulls no punches when it comes to the drug problem.

"But he never took cocaine or dope to play soccer better. If he had, he wouldn't have been able to play until he was 38, when he was still playing very well," said Risi.

Maradona was suspended for drugs while playing in Italy in 1991 and kicked out of the 1994 U.S. World Cup after a dope test -- which he blamed on one of his coaching team buying the wrong medicine off a supermarket shelf.

Unlike many adoring Argentine fans, who see him as a victim of bad influences like Coppola and the Camorra who befriended him while playing for Naples, Risi thinks Maradona pressed a self-destruct button when his playing career was over.

"I think he is more a victim of his own character, who decided at a certain point to damage himself," said Risi. "For a man who was so great, not being able to do those things on the field any more must have been difficult to live with."