Pelé: Birth of a Legend (2016)
Association football is known by many names the world over, the most common being abbreviations of its official title. While football is the most accepted, the now derided term ‘soccer’ was similarly spawned from the word association. Likewise, Pelé: Birth of a Legend is also cropped, limiting its scope to only the first 17 years of its titular character's life. Though this may result in a lightweight portrayal of the legend, it nevertheless enables writer/director brothers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist to illustrate why the sport is referred to as ‘the beautiful game’.
A brief glimpse of Pelé at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden precedes the biopic flashing back to the dusty streets of Brazil eight years earlier, where a group of street urchins purloin items of clothing to fashion themselves a ball. Cheerfully employing all parts of their bodies except their hands to keep the ball in the air, one can see the origins of play that so captivated the football world. Not that his mother is all that impressed. Chastened by her husband’s experience with the sport, Celeste insists her son focus on his studies, laying the groundwork for just one of many innocuous obstacles Pelé must overcome.
Chief amongst these is the decision of Brazil’s governing body to abandon its free-flowing style of football. Eager to avoid a repeat of their previous World Cup losses, consecutive coaches insist their teams adopt the more structured style of the Europeans, giving the Zimbalist brothers an excuse to turn their first non-documentary film into a tutorial about Brazilian football. A sympathetic talent scout even gives Pelé a history lesson of the 'ginga' style, complete with dramatic recreations.
Nevertheless, the filmmakers stick to the biopic tropes almost as tightly as the Brazilian coaches conform to Europe’s style of football. A disapproving parent, a concocted villain and a significant event preceding the subject’s life told in flashback … they’re all here. One could also quibble about Vincent D'Onofrio and Colm Meaney contributing little more than their names and bluster to an impressive Brazilian cast. Yet first and foremost this biopic remains solid family fare and, much like Pelé’s personality, the joyfulness is infectious.
Though the story of Pele and his teammates stealing peanuts to buy soccer outfits is true, they only managed to get enough money for shirts and shorts. The team remained shoeless.
Pele was not present when the boy’s dirt hideout collapsed. Nor was the boy who perished one of his friends.
No scene recreations from Pele’s film career, though the Swedes in the 1958 World Cup Final come awfully close to employing the same tactics the Nazis did in his best known feature Escape to Victory.