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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, Pele 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 Pele: 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 Pele famously dubbed it. Unfortunately, it lacks the spark necessary to appeal to non-fans. Recently showcased at the Tribeca Film Festival, Pele: Birth of a Legend is slated for theatrical release on May 6 via IFC Films.
The story begins with 9-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 Pele 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’Onorio, 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 Gold), 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 B&W footage of the World Cup match and highlights of Pele’s legendary career are showcased.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Special Screening)
Distributor: IFC Films
Production: Imagine Entertainment, Seine Pictures, Zohar International
Cast: Kevin de Paula, Leonardo Lima Carvalho, Seu Jorge, Vincent D’Onofrio, Colm Meaney, Rodrigo Santino, Mariana Nunes, Diego Boneta
Directors-screenwriters: Jeff Zimbalist, Mike Zimbalist
Producers: Brian Grazer, Ivan Orlic, Colin Wilson, Kim Roth, Isabelle Tanugi
Executive producers: Michael Rosenberg, Guy East, Paul Kemsley, Benjamin Mathes
Director of photography: Matthew Libatique
Production designer: Dominic Watkins
Editors: Luis Carballar, Naomi Geraghty, Glen Scantlebury
Costume designer: Ines Salgado
Composer: A.R. Rahman
Casting: Gail Stevens, Mary Vernieu, Michelle Wade Byrd
Not rated, 107 minutes
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