Saturday 24 August 2019

No false modesty when Ronaldo allows a glimpse of a life too perfect to share


Dion Fanning

No film dealing with loneliness, ambition and the fruitless pursuit of happiness can be said to be merely a PR vehicle but that is how Ronaldo, the movie about the man, is in danger of being portrayed.

The reaction may say something about our own confused relationship with celebrity. We see a man as narcissistic and wealthy as Ronaldo, and we dismiss the movie as froth. The great riches of someone like Ronaldo inevitably become an insurmountable hurdle when we try to summon empathy. We react cynically to what we perceive as an act of cynicism.

But this is not a cynical movie and, in some ways, it is a work of art as it contains the truth. Ronaldo is vain so we witness his obsession with his body; Ronaldo is self-obsessed so we see him telling us how he wanted a son and "successor"; Ronaldo is shaped by Jorge Mendes so we watch as his agent expresses his devotion to his "special son". This is a subversive work disguised as a vanity project.

Ronaldo is a willing participant, incapable of imagining that anyone as glorious as he is could be seen as foolish for loving himself so much.

He has much in common with Tom Cruise, both men had tough childhoods and difficult relationships with their fathers. Ronaldo is as comfortable revealing his ambition as Cruise and as dismissive of those who don't match his standards.

This is also a story of fatherhood. Ronaldo wishes he had a different father, one who was present instead of the man whose life was destroyed by alcohol and died of cirrhosis of the liver.

He appears to have a tender and loving relationship with his son but refuses to talk about the identity of the mother, whether she was a surrogate or a woman he met in a bar. "Some kids never get to know their parents," he says, "neither father nor mother . . . a father is good enough."

A man in search of a different father decides to bring up a son without the son's mother and he reveals all this on film. Whether it makes him look good or leaves out the times when the boy is cared for by nannies is not the most important point although maybe a different film would have told that story. We can wait for the useless biopic for that. This film tells a story of a man whose ambitions extend to making the past as well as the future a better place.

Ronaldo is alone but insists he likes it that way. Nobody could share a life with a man who feels his life is too perfect to be shared.

We sigh when sportspeople engage in false modesty but there is nothing false here and there is no modesty. Ronaldo's pursuit of the fool's gold that is the Ballon d'Or is clearly demented but a movie designed to show him in the best possible light would have pretended that the European Cup mattered more to him.

When Ronaldo says it would be easier to play for Portugal if they had a couple of more Ronaldos, is he speaking the truth? It comes closer to it than the boilerplate press conference replies about the lads giving 110 per cent and whoever comes in doing a job for the team.

Ronaldo would never see things in those terms because he has come to understand that he is different, a feeling which is probably confirmed to him by life.

"When you work harder than the others, you suffer more," he explains over shots of struggling Portuguese players. "Don't they want to talk to me as well?" Raul Meireles asks as Ronaldo delivers an injury bulletin to a TV camera during the World Cup.

They don't want to talk to Raul Meireles, Ronaldo knows that and doesn't care who knows it too. The Ballon d'Or matters to him because it is an affirmation of Ronaldo and nobody else. Well, nobody except guys like Jorge Mendes whose life is also devoted to Ronaldo.

As much as the film is about Ronaldo, the movie is about Mendes too.

He is the surprising comic relief here. Those who have heard nothing but talk of Mendes's sophisticated ways will be surprised to see him in action.

Most of the time, he is seen on the phone but occasionally we glimpse him in full flow, talking about football and life with a glass of red wine in his hand.

"Nothing is impossible, my friend," he repeats several times during one scene in a fine restaurant, at one point appearing to lean over to repeat the life lesson to the sommelier but then he gets up to shake hands with Rio Ferdinand who has just walked in.

Mendes seems less a master of the universe and more another showbiz agent trying to hustle for his clients. If things had worked out differently, he could have been Broadway Danny Rose telling a balloon-folding act how he wanted to make him the greatest balloon folding act in the world.

Woody Allen's film was described as a comedy about myth-making. After the clasico, Ronaldo hosts a dinner for those he trusts, his family and friends. Mendes works himself into a frenzy of devotion which ends with an embrace as he tells Ronaldo, "If I didn't know you, I'd ask you for an autograph."

Mendes clearly knows what he's doing but we know too. We are watching a film about two men who "started with nothing", with Ronaldo setting off from Madeira to pursue his dream of being a footballer and Mendes "selling videotapes".

Maybe this is a film about myth-making too. The myth and the reality have merged. Ronaldo confuses the two, having made it to "the cold and barren reaches of unlimited success", as E.L. Doctorow put it. He lives in perfect isolation with every need catered for as he moulds a child to be just like him and maybe tries to make himself more like the child he describes as a great influence.

The movie ends with everyone happy at Ronaldo's 30th birthday party. While the crowd watch as a giant '30' lights up the room, Ronaldo places the same numbers onto a cake. As he moves away, somebody steps in and puts the numbers in the right order so they display '30' not '03'. Ronaldo had revealed the truth. He really can't help himself.

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