Early on while watching The World at Their Feet, FIFA’s chronicle of the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, I dozed off. In my somnolence, I wondered if a saucy old British sex farce from the early 1970s was playing instead, a film full of fart jokes, sexual innuendo, and nurses frolicking in the nude. (If you are unfamiliar with this genre, Confessions of a Window Cleaner and its sequels are on YouTube. Don't watch at the office.)
When I jolted awake, I could see no bare white bottoms on-screen; Bobby Charlton's naked pate, sweating in the Mexican heat, was as saucy as it got. It must have been the film's music that triggered the association.
I put this silly thought aside. How could this documentary have anything to do with films about randy window cleaners? This was the work of the Mexican auteur Alberto Isaac, a filmmaker who had collaborated with Gabriel Garcia Márquez and whose earlier documentary about the 1968 Mexican Olympics was nominated for an Oscar.
What I had seen of Isaac's Olympics film had some elegance and beauty. But as The World at Their Feet progressed, I wondered if he was a director in name only. It features an absurd fictional subplot involving a dreamy young Mexican lad running away from home to see the Azteca Stadium. No one seems concerned that he is a runaway.
And it dawned on me, as the film unfolded, that I had got the genre wrong when I was thinking of British sex comedies. The World at Their Feet in fact resembles the short (but never short enough) documentary films foisted on British cinemagoers in the 1970s before the main feature. With titles like Telly Savalas Looks at Portsmouth, Peter Murray takes you to Nottingham, and Danger — Women at Work, these films were excruciating snapshots of British life that featured a dull serving of local landmarks, smarmy commentary, and a bombastic big-band soundtrack.
To wit, The World at Their Feet should be renamed Patrick Allen Takes Us to Mexico. Allen is the narrator of the film; he was known for years in Britain as the king of voiceovers. (Frankie Goes to Hollywood fans will recognize his rich baritone voice from the song "Two Tribes.") Throughout the film, we hear these chauvinistic quips; "El Salvador fought a war to be here, and look like they're ready to start another"; "Sweden meets Israel. It's a haggle rather than a match"; "Italy kicks off and uncharacteristically go on the attack from kickoff."
Watch the final between Brazil and Italy on YouTube and you understand what the philosopher Alan Watts was getting at when he said the Brazilians "danced their way to triumph." Yet the film captures little of this beauty. It looks like Isaac has been given use of only three cameras, two of which have been positioned high in the upper deck. When England keeper Gordon Banks makes one of the great miracle saves of football history, parrying a Pelé header early in the tournament, Mr. Allen booms, "Banks makes the save of a lifetime!" We have to take him at his word, as we see this in a very long shot. (When the tournament moves to its final stages, someone has the bright idea of sticking a camera behind the goals.)
So Pelé, Rivelino, Tostão, and Gérson of the Seleção are not the talismen of The World at Their Feet; by jingo, it is Patrick Allen's gravelly, stentorian voice. When the film was finished and the credits rolled, I was heartened to discover that the scriptwriter of The World at Their Feet also penned Suburban Wives and The Sexplorer, while the composer scored Snow White and the Seven Perverts and, yes, Naughty Wives.