Frédéric Auburtin's absurdly hagiographic drama United Passions purports to tell the history of FIFA — the world's governing institution for soccer — from its 1904 founding up until its announcement of South Africa as the host country for the 2010 World Cup. Auburtin takes pains to paint FIFA in the most glowing possible light, eliding entirely controversies that have dogged it for decades, including numerous accusations of corruption and tacit support of human rights abuses: One recent report alleged that more than 62 laborers working on preparing the 2022 Qatar World Cup will die for each game played at the tournament.
Most of the film's $20 million budget, of which FIFA reportedly funded 90 percent, appears to have been lavished on a name cast, presumably to lend the project some credibility. Yet the major players uniformly fail to bring their A-games. A porcine Gérard Depardieu is unusually and frustratingly restrained as mild-mannered World Cup originator Jules Rimet. Sam Neill is epically miscast as Brazilian João Havelange, who served as FIFA president from 1974 to 1998. Havelange is the closest United Passions comes to a three-dimensional character — a faintly Machiavellian figure with a deep-seated desire to globalize the sport. Yet Neill gives him a comically distracting Liam Neeson — from-Taken accent and the leering air of an uncle with a dark secret. And what to make of poor Tim Roth, who appears as Sepp Blatter, the Swiss watchmaker who ascended the ranks to succeed Havelange? Roth looks mortified to be involved, and no wonder: His character's most heroic moments include securing sponsorship deals with Coca-Cola and Adidas — events at which the terminally un-self-aware Auburtin clearly intends for the audience to cheer.
As propaganda, United Passions is as subtle as an anvil to the temple. As drama, it's not merely ham-fisted, but pork-shouldered, bacon-wristed, and sausage-elbowed. The script is essentially a press release with speaking parts and exposition. The "action" is a dulling catalog of frictionless, uninteresting administrative scenarios captured with blandly glossy photography and slathered in a syrupy orchestral score. One scene comes tantalizingly close to providing some actual conflict. An investigative journalist confronts Blatter about rumors of financial foul play, but just before Blatter has a chance to engage, Auburtin, in an evasive flourish of breathtaking audacity, launches into a montage, incongruously scored to Talking Heads' jaunty "Wild Wild Life," spanning the sixteen years from World Cups Argentina '78 to U.S.A. '94.
It's understandable that FIFA would rather not air its dirty laundry in public, but do they really believe that United Passions will convince anyone but the most credulous viewers of its spotless ethics? Their task has been made harder by the surprising news that several FIFA officials have been arrested and will be extradited to the United States on federal corruption charges. The timing of the American release, then, couldn't be more bitterly ironic: It was intended to commemorate the inevitable re-election of Blatter, a man so confident of securing a fifth successive term that he didn't publish a manifesto. Instead, its shameless propaganda has been made to look even more laughable — a remarkable feat.