Netflix documentary on Pelé knits Brazilian football legend's illustrious career with his country's politics

Pelé is a two-pronged narrative —the primary one a starry survey of the footballer's achievements, and the second, Brazil's military takeover in 1964 and display of strategic interest in “the beautiful sport.'

The New York Times February 24, 2021 13:27:47 IST
Netflix documentary on Pelé knits Brazilian football legend's illustrious career with his country's politics

There are two documentaries contained within Pelé, David Tryhorn and Ben Nicholas’ film about the Brazilian soccer phenom. The main one is the starry survey of Pelé’s record-setting achievements and national adulation. But a second, more sobering story steadily drops the temperature in the room, once Brazil’s military violently takes power in 1964 and shows a strategic interest in “the beautiful sport.”

The filmmakers run through a storied history, from Brazil’s 1950 loss to Uruguay in the World Cup (when Pelé, as a boy, told his sobbing father that he’ll win it back) to its triumph at the 1970 final. In a recurring sit-down interview, the now 80-year-old legend is both genuine and diplomatic after decades of worship as “the King.” Teammates remain fond, journalists kibitz, and singer-songwriter Gilberto Gil and Brazil’s former president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, proffer pop analysis.

But as we hear soccer repeatedly invoked as the life-force to Brazil’s sense of self, one interviewee sticks out: a matter-of-fact former Cabinet minister, Antônio Delfim Netto, who signed the dictatorship’s infamous “AI-5” act institutionalising torture and censorship. The filmmakers go on to suggest that the national team’s success became part of military propaganda, and Pelé shares his own guarded thoughts on the era.

The dictatorship’s involvement takes the pressures of championship play to another level; Pelé later calls the 1970 World Cup victory simply a “relief.” I did yearn to see more of his talents in action; his header goal in that year’s Italy final feels cosmically liberating. But however conventional as a whole, the movie feels troubled by the traumas of Pelé’s heyday.

Pele is currently streaming on Netflix.

Nicolas Rapold c.2021 The New York Times Company

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