'Pelé: Birth of a Legend' (Review)

A new movie looks at the life and career of one of the greatest players in soccer history.
Kevin de Paula in Pele: Birth of a Legend Courtesy of Ique Esteves. An IFC Films Release

Kevin de Paula as Pelé in Jeff and Michael Zimbalist’s Pelé: Birth of a Legend. (Photo: Courtesy of Ique Esteves. An IFC Films Release)

From the title shots to the end credits, Pelé: Birth of a Legend will make you smile. This narrative film about the eponymous Brazilian “footballer,” directed by brothers Jeff and Mike Zimbalist, is in the best Hollywood tradition of hero-making. Every cliché is celebrated, including a boyhood loss that cements Pelé’s resolve, a loving father who hones the hero’s talent, and a mother who rules from the kitchen. The film’s predictability is counterbalanced by a terrific score comprised of several styles of Latin music (by Slumdog Millionaire’s A.R. Rahman), colorful production design (by Dominic Watkins), lots of special effects, and some memorable plays by the child actors who portray Pelé.

Filmed on location in Brazil, Pelé may disappoint serious soccer fans because less than half the movie unfolds on the field of play, but it will delight young audiences. And, for the uninitiated, the movie is an entertaining introduction to the soccer icon, born in 1940, a three-time World Cup winner. In Brazil, Pelé is a “national treasure.” In America, the forward was credited with putting soccer on the map, when in 1975, he joined the New York Cosmos, making his debut to a capacity crowd on Randall Island’s Downing Stadium. 

That game is outside the timeline of the film that begins when Pelé is 9 years old (Leonardo Lima Carvalho). It then moves to his professional start at 15 (Kevin de Paula Rosa), and to his recruitment and membership on Brazil’s 1958 World Cup team. Pelé opens with a brief sequence of the player’s famous “header” (a shot made with the forehead) in the last game that clinched Brazil’s victory. The “header” inspires an evocative 3-D special effects headshot of Pelé in which the black and white image assumes dimension and color as the camera slides around it, and the film moves to the tropical hues of Pelé’s storied boyhood in Bauru, Brazil. 

Next is a deftly cut sequence, matched in energy by the lively score, that follows a group of obviously impoverished children organizing a soccer game. Part of the preparation is to pluck laundry from clotheslines, although the movie is so fast-paced that it is easy to miss the significance of the children’s actions. In Harry Harris’s biography, Pelé: His Life and Times, (Welcome Rain Publishers, 2000), Pelé says that because he and his friends could not afford a soccer ball, they would take the largest men’s socks, stuff them with rags or crumpled newspaper, roll them as tightly as possible into the shape of a ball, and tie them with a string. 

Shoeless play was also not uncommon when the hero, born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, was a boy nicknamed “Dico.” Pelé and his childhood friends played soccer barefoot, as they do in the movie, and formed an amateur team called the Shoeless Ones. In the first part of the film, the Zimbalist brothers suggest that in addition to Pelé’s natural talent, it was street soccer that developed his versatility. As Harris explains, playing on unpaved streets took “some skill just to keep your balance on the surface,” and to control a “ball” that changed weight and shape every time it was kicked, or landed in a puddle. 

The street is also where Pelé found his ginga. 

A living legend, credited with coining the phrase “the beautiful game,” Pelé was described as a player who harnessed his ginga. Brazilians use the Portugese word to define their brand of soccer, but also what they view as their natural grace. In Pelé, the hero finds his ginga as he practices with his father, Dondinho (singer-songwriter Seu Jorge), who had a brief career as a professional footballer. When Pelé is chosen for the World Cup team, his coach, Vincente Feola (a miscast Vincent D’Onofrio), attempts to suppress the ginga, calling it street soccer.

Leonardo Lima Carvalho in Pele Birth of a Legend Courtesy Ique Esteves An IFC Films Release

Leonardo Lima Carvalho as young Pelé in Pelé: Birth of a Legend. (Photo: Courtesy of Ique Esteves. An IFC Films Release. )

The second part of Pelé is devoted to the talented teenager who is recruited into the Santos Football Club in São Paulo, and works his way up through the various junior teams, and finally to Brazil’s national team. Viewers not familiar with soccer will miss the fine points, but easily grasp the final phases of Pelé’s journey, when the hero must reconcile the boy he was with the man he is becoming. In his first professional game, Pelé makes a bad play, par for the course for sports heroes. 

The coach realizes that because of his age, Pelé is a good deal smaller and thinner than his teammates, so he puts him on a special diet and sends him down to a youth league. In despair, Pelé heads home, but is stopped at the train station by a famous, retired footballer. In real life, Pelé was spotted by Sabu, the son of the club’s chef. Who better to assure the homesick teenager, worried that he would never be big enough to play, that he would get fat on the new diet?  

Pelé takes an unusual view of the 1958 World Cup quarter and semi-finals, as rife with racism against the dark-skinned Brazilians. According to the filmmakers, the entire Brazilian team was also at odds with Feola who was convinced that if they did not adapt to European-style soccer, which differed from the more aggressive Brazilian formations and play, they would suffer a defeat. Updating sports history is dicey, but the Zimbalist brothers do it well.

Harris says that everybody he knows has a story about Pelé. I have one, too. In 1986, I walked into The Palm in East Hampton with a friend, and Pelé was sitting alone at the other end of the bar. He bought us a drink. Then he pointed to the TV where a post-season baseball game was underway. For ten minutes, while Pelé waited for his dinner companion to arrive, we talked about baseball with the best footballer there ever was. 

Pelé: Birth of a Legend is in theaters and on demand on May 13.