'Pelé: Birth of a Legend' review: It's a win for 'the beautiful game', but a loss for Pelé
It was just in March that we had a Hollywood biopic on a legendary sports figure — Race, about Jesse Owens and his quest for Olympic gold.
This week we have Pelé: Birth of a Legend, which traces the journey of the football god from the slums of Sao Paulo to the finals of the 1958 FIFA World Cup in Sweden.
Pelé (the film) shares a lot of similarities with Race — and the sports film genre in general, whether biopics or fiction: We have a classic underdog tale, a childhood marked by economic deprivation, and an extraordinary gift that will carry this person out of their circumstances. There are other tropes too — the presence of a mentor who uses the most unconventional training to hone the sportsperson’s talent, the evil/condescending competitor who suddenly becomes our star’s grudging supporter in the final showdown, the prospect of a debilitating injury that haunts the hero, and ultimate triumph.
We start the film with Edson Arantes do Nascimento running through the streets of Sao Paulo and playing football with his ragtag bunch of friends when he isn’t busy at his shoe-shining job, or helping his mother clean houses. He is nicknamed “Pelé” by an older kid (at whose home Edson’s mother works) as a taunt. However, “Pelé” later becomes the name that is chanted by adoring fans, amazed at the prodigy’s prowess on the field.
Even as Pelé: Birth of a Legend is looking at the life of the sports icon, it also offers an insight into Brazilian society of the 1950s. There are various conflicts that are depicted — class consciousness, the desire among a certain class of Brazilians to be seen as “Europeans” (a consequence of being ruled by the Portuguese?) and modern, and the need among other countrymen to stay true to their roots, to honour their culture. And there is the overwhelming identification the country has with the fate of their national football team — surely an aspect that Indian audiences and cricket lovers will be able to identify with.
Brazil’s loss in the 1950 World Cup provides an interesting crisis in both Pelé’s life and Brazil’s. Pelé — then a child of around 10, is crushed to see how the loss has affected his father (a former footballer whose career is grounded by a knee injury) and promises that he will bring home the World Cup one day. For the nation, however, the loss is an indication that it must give up its unique (its detractors then call it “primitive”) style of football, “ginga” (evolved from the African slaves’ martial arts and spiritual practices), and adopt the clinical precision of the European teams’ formations. This is a metaphor for the larger identity struggle the country is going through in terms of which direction it must move in.
What Pelé: Birth of a Legend has attempted, then, is pretty amazing. Unfortunately, it is completely let down by its execution.
For one, directors Jeff and Michael Zimbalist have stuffed the film too full of the genre tropes mentioned earlier. Secondly, the film itself is far too patchy, as are some of the performances (such as Vincent D’Onofrio playing Team Brazil coach Vicente Feola), and there are times when the clichés nearly overpower the narrative. And there are far too many moments of a similar type in the film, depicted in the exact same way — those pertaining to Pele’s moments of doubt on the field, and (temporary) loss of confidence in his game, and how the words of his father help him pull through these.
What saves the film, however, is its subject. One cannot help but be awed by what Birth of a Legend is attempting to depict — the towering personality that is Pele.
Both actors who have been roped in to portray Pelé — Leonardo Lima Carvalho to depict the 10-year-old version of the star, and Kevin de Paula as the 15-17 year old, first chosen for the national club Santos FC and then the national team — are wonderful to watch, in different ways. Carvalho is endearing and a better actor than de Paula, but de Paula has the difficult task of bringing the grace and beauty of Pelé’s game to life. You can forgive him for the moments when he is expressionless, because he is far from it once he has to depict the on field sequences.
The best presence in the film by far is that of Seu Jorge, who plays Pele’s always encouraging, supportive father.
Two aspects about Pelé that need to be discussed are the cinematography and the music. Matthew Libatique sets up beautiful frames time and again; the background score by AR Rahman sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t. (As an aside, there's also a chance to get quick glimpses of other iconic Brazilian football stars, Pelé's teammates.)
Pelé: Birth of a Legend doesn’t do justice to the story for the world’s greatest soccer star. However, it does manage to capture, in a small way, the essence of “the beautiful game” he played.