“PELÉ: BIRTH OF A LEGEND” — 3 stars — Kevin de Paula, Vincent D'Onofrio, Rodrigo Santoro, Diego Boneta, Leonardo Lima Carvalho; PG (thematic elements, some smoking and language); in general release
“Pelé: Birth of a Legend” tells the story of one of the world’s most celebrated soccer players. It is a portrait of a player and his country, and even if the film takes a conventional route to its destination, fans of the game should still enjoy it.
It’s tricky to turn the youngest player in World Cup history into a traditional sports movie underdog. So directors and brothers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist do something interesting: They make Pelé’s home country of Brazil into an equal protagonist in his story.
The film opens during Pelé’s impoverished childhood. The future legend is born Edson Arantes do Nascimento to a father (Dondinho, played by Seu Jorge) who works as a janitor. Dondinho had promise as a soccer player, but an injury derailed his career. So when his young son (played as a 9-year-old by Leonardo Lima Carvalho) turns a local youth soccer tournament into a personal highlight reel, Mom and Dad are hesitant to show enthusiasm.
But in spite of his humble background, the boy’s skills prove too much to contain. Some of the wealthy players dub him Pelé as a form of mockery, but the future icon (played as a young man by Kevin de Paula) is soon competing for a position on the national team.
The timing is critical, as Brazil is preparing for the 1958 World Cup and trying to redeem itself after two previous disappointments. The national team is feeling pressured to adapt to sophisticated European styles of play, such as the complicated schemes employed by the Cup's host nation of Sweden, and have brought in a no-nonsense coach named Feola (Vincent D’Onofrio) to restore Brazil to international prominence.
But Pelé embraces a style of play called Ginga, which echoes the martial arts tradition and culture of black slaves who were brought to Brazil centuries earlier. The higher Pelé climbs into the sport, the more he realizes he is at the forefront of a national identity crisis.
This all adds to the weight of the World Cup competition “Birth of a Legend” eventually showcases in the third act of the film, lending meaning to the Cup history soccer fans will already know by heart. It also hints as to the source of what makes fans around the world so passionate about their game.
But while “Birth of a Legend” touches on weighty subjects such as national identity and class tension, its tone often employs a frenetic highlight-reel style that gives its content more flash than depth. The style should be enjoyable to younger viewers, but it also leaves the audience feeling like Pelé’s story has more hiding beneath the gloss.
One major upside to the style is the energy it gives the sports action, which feels legitimate, even if some quick cuts might be enhancing the athletic limitations of some of the actors. For his part, de Paula does a solid job as Pelé, both on the field and in his quieter moments. It’s also fun to see actor-musician Seu Jorge on hand as Pelé’s loving father.
Overall, “Pelé: Birth of a Legend” is a solid sports film and a pleasant introduction to an international icon. As a bonus, ambitious fans should consider combining “Birth of a Legend” with home screenings of John Huston’s 1981 film “Victory,” which features the real Pelé in all his bicycle-kicking glory.
“Pelé: Birth of a Legend” is rated PG for thematic elements, some smoking and language; running time: 107 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.