Pelé: Birth of a Legend (2016) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG for thematic elements, some smoking and language
Running Time: 107 min.
Cast: Kevin de Paula, Seu Jorge, Vincent D'Onofrio, Mariana Nunes, Diego Boneta, Colm Meaney, Leonardo Lima Carvalho
Cameo: Rodrigo Santoro, Pelé
Director: Jeff Zimbalist, Michael Zimbalist
Screenplay: Jeff Zimbalist, Michael Zimbalist
Review published May 19, 2016
Pelé: Birth of a Legend pays idol-worshipping homage to the titular Brazilian soccer great who would go one to become arguably the greatest to play the sport. The film covers about eight years of the life of Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé (a name borne from a youthful insult he would later embrace), from his young childhood as a nine-year-old boy from an poor Sao Paulo family in 1950, through his debut on the biggest stage of all for fans of soccer (aka, football to most of the world outside of the United States), in the 1958 FIFA World Cup in Sweden, where he would be instrumental in helping Brazil win the championship.
Written and directed by documentarians Jeff and Michael Zimbalist (Youngstown Boys, The Two Escobars) as if it were a kids' movie, Birth of a Legend is a clunky and wholly clichéd sports biopic, full of rudimentary dialogue (in English, even though, oddly, people also write and say a few expressions in Portuguese), sappy and melodramatic emotional beats, contrived and highly embellished story elements, and some of the most amateurish acting you'll likely see in a big-screen release in 2016.
On the plus side, the film is colorfully shot by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Money Monster, Chi-Raq) in Pelé's home land of Brazil, mostly in Rio de Janeiro, and some of the on-the-field action is moderately fun to watch, particularly when we see Pelé shred through many defenders with his dexterity and amazing physical prowess -- he really is like a dancer out in the green. Unfortunately, even these scenes are marred by so many close-ups, cuts and jittery camera work (the credits list three editors employed to chop this up to near incoherence) that it's hard to truly appreciate the athleticism involved in watching players at the highest level of their game do their thing. As such, the footage of the real Pelé, who also makes a blink-and-you'll-miss-him cameo in the film, that adorns the end credits is more exciting than the in-film action.
Alas, the soccer action only takes up about a quarter of the film, with the rest of it pushing forward saccharine and superficial character development, in continuously trying to push forward the notion that the Brazilian team were extreme underdogs who really had no business being in the World Cup, much less the Championship game. While the true story of Pelé being able to come from the humblest of origins practicing barefoot with his father (Jorge, City of God) or friends, to later become an international hero practically overnight, is something of great inspiration, the way this plot is developed feels unoriginal, coming across like just about every other underdog sports story we've seen for the last several decades, all coated with the out-of-place percussive rhythms of the A.R. Rahman (The Hundred-Foot Journey, Million Dollar Arm) score.
After the beginning chapters in which a young Nascimento plays schoolyard and street sports with his friends in a way that often resembles to soccer what The Sandlot does for baseball, Kevin de Paula plays Pelé during his teenage years, with a plotline that isn't so far from that of Luke Skywalker's in Star Wars, showing his meager beginnings dreaming to leave and find his destiny as a soccer great, only for his parents to tell him to put those dreams on hold to work on his education because his father led a not-so-noble life as a result of those pursuits. And like Luke, he learns to trust something greater than the game, but instead of the Force, it's 'ginga', a Brazilian mix of capoeira-tinged martial arts and dance tradition that has all but become forbidden to employ over the years. Whenever Pelé finds the odds overwhelming, he call call upon ginga to guide their way to victory, even when his coach (played in hammy fashion by poorly accented Vincent D'Onofrio, Jurassic World) and others tell him to trust in proven European soccer techniques and strategies.
At the end of the film, while you'll come to appreciate the young phenom that was Pelé, you'll probably walk out without that kind of jubilation that the filmmakers try to inspire. For a film that consistently extols the beauty of soccer, it so often feels like there isn't much joy to be had in the playing of the sport so much as the winning of the games on the world stage. If you're interested, check out Pelé's exciting real-life footage on YouTube instead and let the man himself show you in an instant why he would become beloved around the world, saving yourself the hundred minutes of mostly bad sports drama that precedes it that's unbefitting of a legend.
©2016 Vince Leo