Brothers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, noted documentary filmmakers, tackle their first narrative feature film in “Pele: Birth of a Legend,” about legendary Brazilian soccer star and “Athlete of the Century” Pele. While the format may be new, the subject matter certainly is not. They know the worlds of Brazil and soccer, from their excellent documentaries “Favela Rising” and “The Two Escobars,” and are therefore a natural choice to bring Pele’s early years to the screen.
The “Birth of a Legend” subtitle is an important one here. The film culminates with the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, where Pele made his international soccer debut at the age of 17, and instantly skyrocketed to legend status. This is only part one of the Pele legend, which continues to this day. (He’s 75, makes a cameo in the film, and will no doubt be a huge presence at this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio.)
Storywise, “Birth of a Legend” is fairly standard-issue stuff. Growing up poor in the favelas, young Dico do Nascimento (Leonardo Lima Carvalho) and friends played wherever and with whatever they could get their hands on. During a match against some snobby older rich kids, Dico gets the nickname Pele, a sound-alike for his favorite player Bile.
Young Pele doesn’t have proper soccer balls or boots or gear, but he’s long on talent, especially when he embraces his unique style, fancy footwork honed on the streets of the favelas, made precise with kicking practice with his father (Seu Jorge), using mangoes on their breaks from janitorial work. At the age of 16, Pele (Kevin de Paula) is called up to the big leagues, playing on the youth team for Santos Football Club, and quickly working his way up to the pro team with his combo of hard work and flair.
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His style is called “ginga” — the spirit that flows through the Brazilian martial art of capoeira, a self-defense practice created by African slaves that was disguised as a dance, and then flowed into the Brazilian obsession with all things football. With its African roots, it’s decried as primitive, and players like Jose (Diego Boneta) and coach Feola (Vincent D’Onofrio) try to push him toward a more European style. But ginga is what makes Pele so brilliant, and what makes the diverse, mixed-race group of Brazilians who they are.
There’s nothing truly innovative about the script, which wraps its story around the 1958 World Cup. It’s uplifting, straightforward, blandly inspiring. The best element of the film is the gorgeous cinematography by Matthew Libatique, who captures the sun-dappled landscape as well as the thrilling and beautiful game play. It’s some of the best rendering of soccer in a film. This is underscored by the excellent music by Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” composer A.R. Rahman, a rousing blend of Brazilian samba and African drumming.
The directors choose to make Pele’s experience of playing the game visually subjective. He focuses on the ball and suddenly, mentally, he’s on the streets with his friends, instead of on an international stage. It reinserts the joy into the game for him when the pressure’s on. The film finds itself focusing on the camaraderie of the team, the sheer fun they have. Pele’s joy in the game is infectious, and “Birth of a Legend” is infectiously inspiring too.
Pele: Birth of a Legend
☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Kevin de Paula, Seu Jorge, Diego Boneta, Vincent D’Onofrio, Colm Meaney.
Directors: Jeff and Michael Zimbalist.
Running time: 1:47.
Rated: PG, for thematic elements, some smoking and language.