In the “Special Thanks” section of the end credits of United Passions, the very first name listed is that of Joseph Sepp Blatter, the (at time of writing) current President of FIFA. Considering that United Passions is a film where Blatter is the main character for half of its running length, this should tell you all you need to know about this film, whose 19 million dollar budget was largely provided by FIFA itself. After debuting a ghastly trailer a few months ago, United Passions got a very, very limited release before being made available through VOD channels. Is it as much a propaganda film as it appears? Or is it really a worthwhile exploration of footballs global governing body?
United Passions tells the story of FIFA, from its limited foundations in 1904 to the sprawling empire of today, primarily through three inter-linked figures: Jules Rimet (Gerard Depardieu), who tries to create an international competition of renown in the first half of the 20th century, Joao Havelange (Sam Neill), who tackles organisational stagnation in the 70’s, and finally Sepp Blatter (Tim Roth), who helps brings commercialisation to the game in the more modern era.
More in-depth discussion of the film, with spoilers, from here on out. For my shorter, non-spoiler, review, click here to go to The Write Club.
Right from the start here, I want to be upfront about how bad this film is. Not God’s Not Dead level bad, but still absolutely terrible. I’m going to go through United Passions bit by bit without dallying anywhere too long, but before any of that I want to be clear about how much disdain I have for this production generally.
We open on a scene so full of corn I’m amazed the director passed it off with a straight face. The narrative of United Passions is framed around a football match between a load of kids in some unstated part of the world, playing on a dirt pitch. United Passions returns to this scene repeatedly, without any clear reason as to why, apart from a tired metaphor about how underdogs can prove doubters wrong or something – as well as trying to get across the enduring popularity of football, as larger and larger amounts of people come to watch the kids play. But it’s all just a temporary distraction from what the film is trying to show us in the actual substantial parts of the production and seemed, at times, to just be the only way that the creators could put actual football in their film about football.
From there, we dive headfirst into the awful. Overly dramatic narrations announce that several individuals are seeking to form a world governing body for the sport at the start of the 20th century, said with all the gravitas of someone announcing a declaration of war. We get introduced to our opening batch of continental footballing idealists, most notably Carl Hirschmann, a Dutchman who served as one of FIFA’s first secretary generals. He approaches the FA’s Lord Kinnaird about English involvement in the proposed new global entity, astonishingly choosing to do so in the middle of a football match.
FIFA’s track record of dispute with the English FA is well known, as are Sepp Blatter’s frequent instances of butting heads with the same organisation – they tend to have this annoying tendency to not fall in line behind him at every turn like other national FA’s. So, while it is quite true that the early days of FIFA were marked by a rivalry with the FA, it should come as no surprise that the English in United Passions are undoubtedly the bad guys, whose every appearance in the film adds on another layer of antagonism. Here, it’s just all too casual arrogance and dismissiveness of the Europeans trying to play their game, while they prance about giving instructions to the teams playing before them. Focusing on how different the game was in this period – along with how it was still basically recognisable – would have been a far better road to take. Instead, we get an awkward and slanted conversation on the sideline.
These opening scenes also contain much of what makes United Passions so badly directed. Scenes are framed and lines are written as if they are being made for a docudrama-like production. There are no character arcs here, just reconstructions of events that happened. I kept expecting a narrator or modern interviews to cut in, Seachtar Na Casca style. It really does have that feel, of simply being scenes from a history book played out as simple as possible, little bits and pieces of FIFA’s history played out in short scenes. Characters speak their motivations like its nothing, and exposition is the order of the day. It’s worse in the opening half of the production, but never really goes away. Feeling like you’re watching footage meant for a different kind of film, being presented as straight drama, gives the whole affair a very unsettling feeling.
Anyway, FIFA is founded in someone’s kitchen and the narrative jumps ahead a couple of decades to 1924 and the aftermath of the Paris Olympics. The Uruguayan football team inexplicably has a press conference solely to talk about how great they are – a truly strange moment – but get harassed and harangued by a man in the crowd of fawning journalists. Here’s Jules Rimet, played by French acting legend Gerard Depardieu. Unfortunately this appears to be a bit of stunt casting, as the overweight and deteriorating Depardieu cannot really capture anything of the real Rimet, a far leaner and more impressive looking man in what visual depictions of him remain. Depardieu cannot inject any life into the man either, as flat and stale as anyone else in all of his scenes.
Rimet’s passionate denunciation of Uruguay for having the temerity to win some Olympic medals gets him inside FIFA, and begins the first of two main plots of United Passions: Organising a World Cup of football. There is some brief and barely effective commentary here about the implied dodginess of the host selection for the eventual tournament, with Uruguay – the only nation capable of hosting it at the time – miraculously chosen by what is implied to be a popular vote, after Rimet had all but picked them himself. United Passions might be trying to draw an unexpected parallel with the most recent World Cup bid process, but after the host is picked it moves ahead and never looks back.
Before the World Cup in Uruguay actually starts, we do get another look at those terrible English officials, still sneering at FIFA from the sidelines. In a scene with Rimet’s daughter Annette – a character given screentime purely so Rimet would not have to talk to himself when he needs to outline exposition – an English FA official mixes casual racism with sexism, implying that neither Africans or women can play the game. Aside from the fact that both were playing football at that point – Egypt had joined FIFA in 1923 for example, and women had played football for crowds of thousands during World War One – it’s just another way to slander the nameless English bad guys, whom Rimet and co are fearlessly standing up to. No racism with the predominantly French organisation! It also starts this strange and vaguely unsettling recurring plot, about FIFA’s relationship with African football. More on that later.
Anyway, the 1930 World Cup, despite the absence of so many key sides, is a raging success, as an actual “spinning newspaper” effect makes clear. No time to dawdle on any of that though, as United Passions jumps ahead again, something it does all the time, usually in four year bursts to coincide the “action” with the latest World Cup. We never have time to settle in to any time period, as the manic narrative just jumps and jumps and jumps.
Post Italy 34, Jules Rimet is unhappy once again, with the Fascist Italians dominating and the world headed towards war. FIFA is in financial trouble (a recurring theme/excuse) and the relationship between some members is getting rancorous. The levels of precognition from Rimet and others here, about the apparent inevitability of European war, really stretch the bounds of believability. The possibility of a discouraged and disillusioned Rimet having to find a way to bring football out of the darkness is largely forgone as we move forward: another time jump and everything is alright again, with just a brief stopover to discuss the “Death Match” of 1942. They try and make this very moving and dramatic, but it’s all so much bluster and, with modern research taken into consideration, bad history. Football has to be at the forefront of everything in United Passions, even the horrors of the eastern front.
But who cares about any of that because now it is 1950 and time for some Samba soccer! Rimet is happy, FIFA is successful, and we didn’t even have to see any of it being fixed that way. Who has time for that anyway? United Passions forges on with a dramatic reconstruction of the 1950 final in the Maracana, watched and listed to by the entire Brazilian people, perhaps meant as some kind of salute to the host nation of this year (though they do take the time to mock the English a bit more before that. Losing to the USA? How embarrassing monsieur!). It falls horribly flat, not least because of the strange way that the trophy presentation was framed after Uruguay beat the Brazilians, Rimet in shock and moving like a zombie in front of the really obvious green screen. It was portrayed as some kind of horrible blow to Rimet or something – maybe because he really wanted the Brazilians to win or something? – and next thing you know he is in his grave being mourned by his daughter. Thanks Uruguay! Rimet’s part of the plot ceases as suddenly as it started, and with no real point having been made, just a really badly handled reconstruction of a few moments in his career.
And so, onto the second half, where United Passions jumps ahead to a slightly more modern era, ignoring the 54, 58 and 62 World Cups because who cares about them, right? Instead we get Joao Havelange and then FIFA President Stanley Rous. Oh God, an Englishman is in charge of FIFA? Better make him arrogant and racist fast, lest we break the narrative consistency of the film so far. After blindly dismissing Brazilian football in general, we get a stop off in the England of 1966 so we can see Geoff Hurst’s goal again. There’s no larger narrative about ’66 at all, just a brief scene to remind us that it happened before we are off again. What was the point?
Anyway, Havelange wants to be head of FIFA so he can bring the organisation into a new age, tired of seeming stagnation and reluctance to embrace new areas for the game. The arrogant and unprepared Rous is beaten by Havelange in an election they try to frame as tension-filled but just really isn’t: Havelange relies greatly on the votes of delegates from CAF. That’s because he is the friend of the African it would seem, determined to bring that confederation up a few pegs. How nice of him. Such few ulterior motives as well.
This brings us to the introduction of Joseph Sepp Blatter, a Swiss national who finds himself travelling up the FIFA ladder rapidly during Havelange’s tenure. The story now is about the increasing commercialisation of FIFA through corporate sponsorship, excused as a necessity due to FIFA bad financial situation. Blatter is a hero in this regard, fearlessly chatting up the likes of Coca Cola and Adidas, aided and abetted by people like Horst Dassler. Blatter saves FIFA from collapse and becomes a rising star under Havelange’s careful watch. Thomas Kretschmann’s Dassler is sort of involved, but they never go too much into it in United Passions (and we all know why, right?).
The deification of Blatter has begun and is never ending for the rest of the film. Havelange gets slightly worse treatment, with a really odd scene inferring that he was willing to give underhanded support to the Argentina team in 1978 because it would be good for business. This is depicted as a lesson to Blatter in how to move the sport forward, but the vagueness of it all makes the whole exercise, in narrative terms, rather pointless. United Passions seems willing to point in the generally direction of FIFA excesses and corruption, without ever getting into too much specifics.
As an example of that, let’s go back to CAF. Havelange is depicted, sort of, as reneging on some of his previously made commitments to African football, commitments that Blatter eventually makes good on. Sponsorship, development funds, seats at the bigger tables, Blatter makes sure that Africa gets them all, and he gets support in the future as a result. The hidden side of this – that what Blatter was really doing (and continues to do) is essentially blackmail in exchange for votes – is not covered at all. Blatter and co are depicted as the antithesis of the racist English of earlier who have, by the way, now vanished from the screen.
From 1982 on Blatter basically seems to take over the running of FIFA from an increasingly aging and absent Havelange. More strange framing here, as United Passions makes it look for a moment like Havelange is trying to hang Blatter out to dry in place of himself, only for the two to have a much closer relationship in time for the next big time skip, all the way to USA 94. Havelange resigns, and Blatter becomes the next President of FIFA.
This is the big finale, but gets drawn out to a painful degree. Blatter is inexplicably portrayed as a corruption fighting family man, cruelly slandered by uncomprehending journalists who just don’t understand that he is actually against all of that sort of thing.
Facing the truly terrible prospect of being turfed out of his position after 2002, Blatter gets some slightly shady advice from Havelange, which essentially amounts to blackmailing his opponents and voters. It’s all OK, because they are the real bad guys: Blatter is just going to use such things in self defence. It’s another really warped scene of corruption excusing, the closest United Passions gets to actually talking about it all.
Blatter survives in a complete failure of tension-filled filmmaking, bringing the whole torturous exercise to a close, thankfully. Wait, no, we’re not done – our last scene, mid-credits, is Blatter announcing South Africa as the host of the 2010 World Cup. This really is the film where Sepp Blatter is the hero, and the entire finale is framed about how awesome the fact that he is still President is. And look at how much he values Africa football! Not like those nasty English. If only he could give the same consideration to Qatari construction labourers.
United Passions has one female character of note, Annette Rimet, who serves as a support and audience for her father. She’s fairly shallow as a character, just someone to be in scenes with Rimet, with no thoughts or agency of her own. I suppose it is strangely appropriate that such a male-dominated organisation of FIFA should see the film depicting its history carry that gender difference over.
The plot of United Passions is then, a terrible, terrible thing, lacking any verve or excitement, boring in parts and offensive to the intelligence of the audience in others. How does United Passions do when it comes to themes?
Not great either, surprise, surprise. There is generic stuff about having a dream and following it in the opening half, through the idealistic vision of the FIFA founders and Jules Rimet’s idea of a World Cup. They face challenges, problems, opposition, but they always find a way around it. Isn’t FIFA great? Unstoppable, predestined, amazing, you might say. From there it’s simply an overarching theme of getting ahead at any cost, though United Passions is careful not to make the people undertaking such getting ahead as too villainous. Otherwise we might start to think of them as corrupt and bad for the sport in general.
United Passions is a bad film. I suspect FIFA set out to make a self aggrandising propaganda piece that would fit in well with the footballing love-in that Brazil 2014 was supposed to be. When the wave of negativity surrounding that nation’s hosting of the World Cup did not just go away, not to mention the continuing controversy over the 2018 and 2022 hosting decisions, suddenly the atmosphere was not so ripe for its release. So, it seems to have been quietly shunted off to the side with the most limited of limited releases, likely to never really see the light of day in a substantial fashion. A good 19 million down the tubes. It must be nice to have that kind of cash to squander away on such a vanity project.
Blatter, FIFA and the production team have, together, crafted an appalling film, that is far too sympathetic to its subjects and completely unwilling to ask the really hard questions. Aside from that, the narrative is weak, the acting is poor, the direction is mediocre, the script is terrible and the entire effort is repulsive when you take even the most cursory look at its origins and its financial backing. While the more insidious and immoral aspects of God’s Not Dead makes it a worse movie – and likely to be my worst film of the year – United Passions can only say that it is just barely better. As bad as you have heard, and as unworthy of further discussion as you can imagine.
(All images are copyright of Falcon Films, MTVA, and NOS Audiovisuals).