The Brazilian soccer star Pele’ is, by consensus, the greatest to ever play the sport he dubbed “the beautiful game.”
Charismatic, playful, a guy whose joy on the pitch is obvious even in archival footage of his glory days, he was a natural subject for a big screen biography. For decades he’s been the best ambassador for “the world’s game.”
But casting somebody to play Pele’ was never going to be easy. Recreating his creativity on the pitch, his showy, spectacular dribbling and human-highlight-reel goals, as well as his personality, seems impossible.
So “Pele’: Birth of a Legend” played it safe. The filmmakers focus on his early years, before he grew that larger than life personality. The film is framed within his debut on the global stage, at 17, in the 1958 World Cup.
But even within those confines, “Pele'” is bland, Hollywood-zed (in Brazlian/Portuguese-accented English), a sometimes entertaining, dazzling-on-the-field biography built around an utterly colorless lead performance.
Documentary filmmakers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist know Brazil (“Favela Rising”) and soccer (“The Two Escobars”). They get the milieu, the poverty the young shoeshine named Edson Arantes do Nascimento grew up in. Early scenes of a shoeless kid (Leonardo Lima Carvalho) kicking a stuffed sock-ball around in the muddy streets of Bauru with his equally barefoot pals are old-fashioned and sparkle with an old fashioned sports movie life. Racism, poverty, class-ism and tragedy stand in the kid’s way.
But as the boy who nicknamed himself after a goalie nicknamed “Bile'”, and pronounced it wrong, reaches his teens, the film settles into generic in the worst kind of ways. Watered down racial/class conflict within the locker room, coaches who try to “civilize” his “savage” and by extension, “black and primitive” style, disdainful Europeans and white Brazilians — it’s real cut-and-paste stuff.
And while star Kevin de Paula manages the soccer wonderfully (if at half-speed, at times), there’s no spark to the performance. With a lone running gag (“Tie your shoes,” “Lace up your BOOTS,” etc.) and a script structure utterly reliant on the highs and lows of that Stockholm World Cup, they never scripted a personality.
Flashbacks showing how the kid’s ex-player, now-janitor dad (Seu Jorge) taught his kid the martial arts-based “ginga” style of play, kicking mangoes into trash-cans, are cute.
“I’ll win a World Cup for you, Pa. I promise!”
Black and white coverage of the games (as they were seen in much of the world) is nicely integrated into the story. And the stop-time treatment of the games, showing how great athletes see the field of play and envision how they will score, is terrific.
Vincent D’Onofrio and Colm Meaney are solid in supporting roles as opposing coaches, and Rodrigo Santoro stands out among the teammates, guys too intimidated to play the game the way they know how, and not the disciplined “European” style.
And Pele’ himself turns up in a cameo and in the archival footage in the closing credits.
But the Zimbalists fail to get across a sense of how soccer-mad South America is. There’s little that suggests the passion. The crowd scenes are flat, the exultant moments on the field are flatter.
And that goes for the leading man, as well. Young de Paula manages headers, bicycle kicks and those wonderful flip-the-ball-over-your-opponents’ head move with his feet that made Pele’ famous. We see the drive, but too little of the poetry, the delight, the little kid’s sense of fun that Pele’ brought to his adult career.
Here, the glorious life lived within “the beautiful game” is more a static painting than a colorful, animated celebration of a legend whose footwork and infectious grin won the world over.
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements, some smoking and language
Cast: Kevin de Paula, Leonardo Lima Carvalho, Vincent D’Onofrio, Rodrigo Santoro, Colm Meaney, Seu Jorge
Credits: Written and directed by Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist. An IFC release.
Running time: 1:47