It’s a typical sports movie, where a coach brings together a difficult team and it ends with an exciting final game. Except, that’s not what the story is about.
Champions, or Campeone, by Spanish director Javier Fesser, is about a professional basketball coach who is forced to train a team of mentally disabled players. Marco, an arrogant and brash man who is the assistant coach for the team CB Estudiantes, has problems with everyone in his life. His marriage is in shambles, and an altercation with the head coach makes him drink too much and get arrested for ramming into a police car under influence. Marco’s frustration and restlessness is very evident in most of the initial scenes. He is rude to the officers, the judge, and to his own lawyer. Javier Gutiérrez as Marco is so convincing that his onscreen irritation makes viewers uneasy as well.
He earns himself some community service as punishment from the judge, which turns out to be coaching the team of disabled men. He begins by being predictably disdainful and rude to the team. He is unable to understand why this team would want to play when they are unable to understand the basics of basketball such as passing and shooting. He tries to make them fit into his idea of what sportspeople, or teams, should look like. As he gets to know them as individuals, he transforms into a more bearable person. He learns to identify the good in individual members as he builds a stronger team.
The storyline is predictable, and the humour is on many occasions, infantile. To an Indian audience, the conditions of the mentally disabled in Spain may seem almost aspirational. They have access to a community centre with multiple activities. Many of them are assimilated into the workforce. Nevertheless, Champions is compelling, and has some very powerful portrayals of persistent discrimination.
To an Indian audience, the conditions of the mentally disabled in Spain may seem almost aspirational. They have access to a community centre with multiple activities.
There is also employer who mistreats and abuses the labour of a worker, while benefiting from tax deductions for hiring a disabled person. The scene where the team goes for a match using public transport is insightful: not of the disabled, but how we as a society treat differently-abled persons. Be it the mother who teaches her curious child not to make eye contact and moves away from the disabled man, or the bus driver who has a fit of rage at him singing on the ride, it is a great reflection of what we consider ‘normal’.
In the 2000 summer Paralympics, Spain was exposed for having a team where many of the members were of normal intellectual capacity. Champions takes a clear stand on this, while also giving an insight into how such unethical practices can affect those who are actually disabled.
Marco’s wife is the epitome of manic pixie dream girl – always available for him when he needs her, providing support to him even when he pushes her away. She recognises his Peter Pan syndrome, but is only too happy to become his emotional nanny and literally ‘drives’ his endeavours in a van without getting any credit.
Collantes is sassy with a great talent for basketball and a wonderful sense of humour, but ends up being a stock character for representational purposes.
Her only complaint from him that he refuses to have children. Since she is in her 40s, he is afraid that the child may also turn out to be disabled. As one of his team members says, he wouldn’t want a disabled child either. But he would love to have a father such as Marco, since he is understanding and not condescending of their disability.
Marco’s mother is a strong and independent woman who wants her son to get back with his wife, so that she has her own space. However, she’s a minor character. Just when you are noticing the woeful deficiency of female characters in the film, they bring in a woman with Down’s syndrome in the form of Collantes. She is sassy with a great talent for basketball and a wonderful sense of humour, but ends up being a stock character for representational purposes.
During the finals match, Champions takes a different route by making Les Amigos, Marco’s team, lose. It’s a puzzle to him how this team could be celebrating their loss, but they are quick to remind him that they are not losers. They are runners up. Both the competing teams congratulate each other and display very positive attitudes. They teach Marco what true sportsmanship is.
When Marco is offered a better job, he regresses into his previous childish personality and avoids Les Amigos. As it turns out, they are far more mature than him. They accept his desire to move on in life. They feel in no way indebted to him for coaching them. They are grateful, wish him well, and are quick to remind him how he benefited by coaching them, and became a better person. It reverses typical portrayals of disability, where the disabled are seen as beneficiaries of the protagonist’s magnanimity.
Featured Image Source: Variety