Pelé: Birth of a Legend (2016)

[Review] Pelé: Birth of a Legend (2016)

In their Pelé biopic, Directors Jeffrey and Michael Zimbalist create a loving, lush, and longish ode to the Beautiful Game of Brazil. If you sit back and absorb, there is a lot to enjoy. But it might be the kind of movie that only a soccer fan can love.

It’s a big step from documentaries to features, and despite their track record with The Two Escobars, the Zimbalists struggled to get this movie out the door. Filmed in 2013 for a planned release to coincide with WC 2014, the production missed its market window. The following summer of 2015, the FIFA scandal broke, along with the release of the highly scorned United Passions. As a result, Pelé took a long time to find a distribution channel; it was finally shown at Tribeca in May-2016 followed by a perfunctory short theatrical release.

The focus on realistic soccer

It’s a shame the film had such poor luck, because it is obvious when real soccer enthusiasts create a soccer movie: they work extremely hard to make the play faithful to the game. Jeff Zimbalist said the two boys portraying Pelé at the ages of 10 and 17

“…needed to be exceptional football players… to create authentic and inspiring play action sequences that were more convincing than previous attempts.”

– Director Jeff Zimbalist

In addition to cross-continental casting calls, they even passed out recruitment flyers during the Pope’s visit to Rio, to find their Pelé.

The actors/players they ultimately found, Leonardo Lima Carvalho (younger Pelé) and Kevin de Paula, are a joy to watch as they replicate Pelé’s moves and skills. Singer/actor Seu Jorge also demonstrates his own moves to portray Pelé’s father, who uses ripe mangos to develop the boy’s ball skills and bicycle kick. A theme of the film is that Pelé’s exceptional skills aroused a return to national identity and pride in the Brazilian style of play known as ginga.

Note however, that to capture ginga, the soccer cinematography is often heavily cut and slo-mo. The NY Times has a very interesting article about Aimee McDaniel, whose job is to make any sport look authentic in film. I encourage you to read this article, and I assume her eye had a lot to do with how the soccer is portrayed.

Fictionalization causes a small problem

I do have issues with the film; my first problem is with the portrayal of Italian-Brazilian striker José Altafini (played by Diego Bonota). To add drama, the Zimbalists scripted a fictional Cinderella-like encounter between 10 year old Pelé and the slightly older Altafini. Pelé and his mother clean Altafini’s house while the wealthy boy and his teammates make fun of Pelé. Shortly thereafter, the two compete in a tournament in front of a Santos scout.

Seven years later, the boys meet again when they are called up as the youngest players on the Brazilian national team for WC 1958. Despite always wanting to be European and to play like one, Altafini confides to Pele this was misguided, and instead, they should play the ginga style.

There are multiple problems with this storyline. First of all, apparently the production did not seek Altafini’s input. In truth, his family was poor, and his mother also cleaned houses. Secondly, Altafini’s rejection of European aspirations seems unlikely to be true. At the time of WC 1958, Altafini already had a big offer to play for AC Milan. Shortly thereafter, he became an Italian citizen and represented Italy in WC 1962. He played in Italy for 22 years. When his playing career was over, Altafini became a football pundit for Italian TV and is credited with coining the term “golazzo”.

Inbetween an art film and family fare

My second issue with this film: as others have pointed out, Pelé is in-between an art house film and a family film. While it promotes family values and rising above barriers and socioeconomic circumstances, it is probably too long and slow in the art of soccer to retain a child’s attention.

The DVD has two “making of” features, which are only about as long as the trailer. They do not have much value except for the showcasing of soccer coordinator Aimee McDaniel.

7 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 7