Film Review: Pelé: Birth of a Legend

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More than halfway through Jeff and Mike Zimbalist's biopic about the world's greatest-ever soccer player, the man himself shows up in a brief cameo. After the actor playing his younger self nearly careens into him into a hotel lobby, Pelé turns to the camera, utters a single line and smiles broadly. It's a delightful moment, but it's also telling. The dazzling flash of charisma does more to signify why he became an international icon than the entirety of Pelé: Birth of a Legend.

The film, which dutifully recounts his extraordinary journey from a Brazilian slum to overnight superstardom as a result of—spoiler alert!—Brazil's first-ever World Cup victory in 1958, will no doubt please aficionados of "the beautiful game," as Pelé famously dubbed it. Unfortunately, it lacks the spark necessary to appeal to non-fans.

The story begins with nine-year-old Edson Arantes do Nascimento (Leonardo Lima Carvalho), or Dico, as he was nicknamed by his parents, joyfully playing the game in bare feet with his friends in the streets of his poor village. When Brazil loses the 1950 World Cup final, the heartbroken boy promises his father, a former football player, that someday he'll win the World Cup for Brazil. Whether the incident is true or not, the scene has the feel of a '40s-era Warner Bros. melodrama.

Cut to several years later, when the now 15-year-old boy—mockingly called Pelé because of his mispronouncing the name of a local star goalkeeper—manages to enter a local tournament with his friends and makes a powerful impression with his virtuosic playing. He's recruited by a local scout and works his way up to a professional level. But his unorthodox, fluid playing style—dubbed "Ginga"—leads to conflicts with his coaches, who argue that it's beneath the dignity of the game, at least until he comes under the supportive leadership of coach Vicente Feola (Vincent D'Onofrio, who physically resembles the real figure but isn't exactly convincing as a Brazilian).

The directors/screenwriters are clearly familiar with the milieu, with such pics as The Two Escobars and Favela Rising among their credits. While this film's dramatization is strictly by-the-numbers, its superbly staged soccer sequences use inventive photographic and editing techniques to fully immerse the viewer. (It's not surprising that three editors were utilized.)

Young non-pro Kevin de Paula Rosa ably fulfills the considerable physical demands of the title role, and convincingly conveys his character's ebullient personality. And the supporting cast, which includes a glowering Colm Meaney as British coach George Raynor and such Brazilian stars as Rodrigo Santoro (The 33) and Seu Jorge (City of God), is impressive. Indeed, the production values, including a rousing, percussive musical score by Oscar-winner A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire), are impeccable.

But ironically, the film's most exciting scenes arrive with the end credits, in which thrilling black-and-white footage of the World Cup match and highlights of Pele's legendary career are showcased.--The Hollywood Reporter

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