‘Pelé: Birth of a Legend’ Review: Brazilian Soccer Giant’s Biopic Scores Zero Goals

With so rich a story to tell about poverty, race and talent, a reliance on sports movie clichés sinks this bland feature about one of the 20th century’s most beloved athletes

Last Updated: May 12, 2016 @ 2:36 PM

Any biopic attempting to capture the character of a once-in-a-lifetime athlete has its work cut out for it. Brazil’s soccer legend Pelé is one such sportsman, but the breathlessly superficial “Pelé: Birth of a Legend” from writers-directors Jeff and Mike Zimbalist is not the movie so vibrant and boundary-busting a figure deserves.

Pelé’s story is already so sturdily mythic it demands insight, not further burnishing: the poor black Brazilian kid with exuberantly mad skills who healed his racially-divided, football-loving nation with a 1958 World Cup-clinching performance at 17 that led to a record-breaking career as the sport’s most beloved icon. There’s a lot there to dig into, even for a movie culminating with its hero still a teenager, but “Pelé” prefers to stick to the same old sports-movie formulas and ready-made momentum, which is disheartening considering the richness of the Zimbalists’ multi-faceted soccer documentary, “The Two Escobars” from ESPN’s “30 for 30” series.

Here, when sensitive 9-year-old Edson Arantes do Nascimento (Leonardo Lima Carvalho), in the wake of Brazil’s devastating 1950 World Cup loss, promises his heartbroken father (Seu Jorge) he’s going to win the title for his country one day — an established biographical touchstone in the Pelé story — the movie treats it as origin gospel. But it comes off, as does most of the movie, as one more unexamined sports cliché about fate and triumph.

The early scenes set in the village of Bauru in southern Brazil strive to convey the buoyancy of barefoot children manipulating a makeshift ball through impoverished streets — a flashy, music-driven montage that nonetheless plays like a Nike commercial — but also the race-and-class-bound hardship of the life around them. Nascimento, called “Dico” by his family, earns the name “Pelé” as a taunt after mispronouncing a popular goalie’s name in front of the rich kids of European descent whose house his mother (Mariana Nunes) cleans. When those same kids become the opposing team against Dico and his street pals at a local tournament (because of course), Dico wows everyone with his lively, sleight-of-foot dribbling and shooting skills.

He is soon told by his father that his playing style represents the historical fighting spirit of Brazil itself, known as “ginga.” This information comes, though, with an over-the-top flashback to Brazil’s slavery past, regrettably condensing a nation’s troubled history into one more snazzy montage. But when the talented 16-year-old is recruited to the professional Santos football club, Pelé’s improvisational “ginga” becomes a mechanical plot device: the thing his discipline-intensive coaches hate, but the talent we know will be flicked on like a switch when needed in a big match, eventually stirring national pride.

PELE-vertBy this time, and through the assembling of the Brazilian national team and the 1958 World Cup finale in Sweden, actor Kevin De Paula Rosa has taken over as the adolescent Pelé. While he has plenty of spark and a beautifully open face, the movie never allows him to give a textured performance, busy as it is with story shortcuts and platitude-rich dialogue. It’s as if Pelé is no longer a flesh-and-blood character, but a cog in an inspiration machine that pumps out manufactured conflict and expected victory.

Colm Meaney seems to have been cast as the Swedish team’s coach just to insult the Brazilian players in a press conference scene and whip up pre-climax animosity. Having already dramatized Pelé’s sidelining knee injury and the return of a wealthy childhood rival (Diego Boneta) as a starting position competitor, the buildup becomes overkill.

On the pitch, the directors and cinematographer Matthew Libatique (also in theaters this week with “Money Monster”) manage an admirably rhythmic depiction of the game’s forward thrust, and do a fine job intercutting original shots with archival footage. But only one sequence, set at the Brazilian team’s hotel the morning of the World Cup final, has an intangible elan that speaks to what the movie could have been: a jazzed Pelé enlivens his colleagues’ gloomy breakfast mood by instigating a carefree, trick-intensive dribble-and-pass through the hotel, outside, and down to a nearby lighthouse. The real Pelé makes a winking cameo as a hotel patron, which admittedly adds to the fantastical, ad-campaign verve of an energizing movie moment: we see smiles, flair, mistakes and teamwork. But even if it’s the umpteenth montage in the movie, it’s the only one that speaks to that inimitable phrase our subject himself coined: “the beautiful game.”

Who knows what “Pelé: Birth of a Legend” could have been had it tapped more into that mysterious life force and the true messiness in harnessing it and making it glorious. Instead we get what the man himself was canny enough to ignore: a familiar game plan tediously followed.