'Pele: Birth of a Legend' : Death of a beautiful game

Birth of a Legend is a Hollywoodised, pedestrian portrayal of a fascinating story

Updated - October 18, 2016 12:34 pm IST

Published - May 13, 2016 12:00 am IST

A scene from Pele: Birth of a Legend —Photo: Special Arrangement

A scene from Pele: Birth of a Legend —Photo: Special Arrangement

The most disappointing thing about Pele: Birth of a Legend is its failure to bring alive a fascinating story that has layers of historic, cultural and sporting significance. The film’s tagline not only refers to the arrival of one of the greatest footballers in the history of the game but also the introduction of an ancient, ridiculed-by-the-Western-world, indigenous form of martial arts-meets-dance athleticism practised by African slaves in Latin America in a game dominated by whites.

Ginga, a term most football fans will be familiar with, brought a magical, revolutionary style to the beautiful game and became the basis of national identity for a country struggling to find its feet amidst racism and poverty.

The problem with Pele is not the fact that it doesn’t understand the big picture of its subject. Directors Jeff and Michael Zimbalist who have worked in non-fiction films about Brazil are grounded in the realities of the country. They know too well that the story of Pele is best looked at through a socio-cultural lens.

The film begins with Brazil’s notorious night of heartbreak at the Maracana stadium where the country, from a leading position, lost to an unassuming Uruguay at the 1950 World Cup that they hosted and began as hot favourites.

We see Pele as a little boy, at the time called Dico (Leonardo Lima Carvalho), watching his father hide his face in despair and disappointment as the match ends, taking a quiet oath to bring the cup back to Brazil.

This is a big, gooseflesh-worthy moment that is supposed to set the tone of the film but the Zimbalists are off the mark right from the beginning. The kids, Dico accompanied by a number of his friends, overact till the characters grow up and are replaced by better actors.

The film puts a halo around Dico like he is a child prodigy overlooking any scope for human complexity and greyness. Maybe the latter is a quality we oughtn’t to expect from a broad, Hollywoodised version of a Brazilian story. But unlike in a well etched-out Hollywood biopic, moments like these don’t have the emotional ring.

And this is a recurring problem. A number of potentially exciting scenes lack the desired dramatic bite. Take the scenes that depict Dondinho (Pele’s father, mentor and trainer played by Brazilian superstar Seu Jorge) while working as a janitor in a hospital, training his son in the backyard of the building with the help of mangoes. He needs to learn to kick the ball soft; the juicy mangoes waiting to burst, become the perfect substitute for a football, which the family could avoid spending on anyway.

It could have been a wonderful way of capturing the essence of Brazilian football, a country sunk in poverty but endowed with natural beauty. Instead we are given a generic montage of sun dappled shots of Dico practice as he grows up into a professional footballer.

The story of rise of Pele is a very local one. But instead of peppering it with cultural detail, the directors try to paint it in the broadest of strokes. As a result, all the clichés of an underdog sports movie are overdone: poverty, racism, the underachieved mentor-father, the protective mother, a threatening injury, team in-fighting and the eventual glory on a world stage.

Even if all of these were true — it seems to be, considering Pele’s involvement in it — they are made to feel like clichés. The only redeeming elements come from the thrill of seeing the re-enactment of the on-field artistry. But then that may have more to do with my love for the Selecao more than the way the matches are played out on-screen.

The consistently cheesy acting doesn’t help either, except perhaps Seu Jorge who lends some dignity to the role of Pele’s father. It is ironical that this film makes you wonder what it could have been had it been made with the sensibilities of City of God , Jorge’s breakthrough film that too had a protagonist who began his journey in the slums of Brazil.

Pele: Birth of a Legend

Directors: Jeff Zimbalist, Michael Zimbalist

Cast: Vincent D'Onofrio, Rodrigo Santoro, Diego Boneta, Leonardo Lima Carvalho, Kevin de Paula, Sue Jorge

Runtime: 107 mins

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