Pelé: Birth of a Legend (2016)

Movie Info

Movie Notes

The world both mourns the death and celebrates the life of one f the greatest of athletes– Pelé. We are bringing up from the archives the review of Pelé: Birth of a Legend so you can refresh your memory and then watch it on one of the platforms where it is streaming.

Movie Info

Jeff & Michael Zimbalist
Run Time
1 hour and 47 minutes

VP Content Ratings

Sex & Nudity
Star Rating
★★★★4 out of 5

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 47 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 2; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 0.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression; under their tongues are mischief and iniquity.

Psalm 10:7

Do not be conformed to this world,

but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…

Romans 12:3a

Two very different current releases deal with father-son relationships—Disney’s Alice Through the Looking Glass and directors Jeff & Michael Zimbalist’s sports biography film. The first shows a father’s negative influence, whereas this one demonstrates the positive way in which a caring father can spur his son to achieve his dream.

Edson Arantes de Nascimento lives in great poverty with his family in a Sao Paulo slum. Descended from African slaves, everyone in the family is dark skinned. The film, living up to its subtitle, concentrates on the years between 1950 and the 1958 FIFA World Cup in Sweden, where he would be crucial in helping Brazil win the championship. It begins with a brief scene in which the 17-year-old (played by Kevin de Paula ) walks onto the field of the huge stadium in Sweden. He has been touted as the youngest player ever to play on a national team. All that follows is a long series of flashbacks that include a repetition of this scene.

We see the player, called “Dico” by his family, as a 9-year-old boy (Leonardo Lima Carvalho) playing soccer in the streets with a ball made of stolen shirts and rags, and then with a ragtag, bare-footed team playing against the well-equipped teams of middle class boys looking down and scorning them. Once, when his mother takes him along to the house where she works as a maid, the owner’s son and friends, all of them very much lighter in color, come in and harass the boy, insulting him with the nickname Pelé, which was a corruption of the name of his favorite soccer player, Bilé. Only years later, when his fans started calling him that, would he embrace it.

During the radio broadcast of the 1950 World Cup final, host Brazil suffered a humiliating defeat by Uruguay. Atop a roof young Pelé listens to the broadcast while spying on his father Dondinho (Seu Jorge) through a hole in the roof. Seeing the huge let-down of all of the adults, he promises him that one day he will win the World Cup for him. However, his mother Celeste (Mariana Nunes) wants him to pursue his studies rather than follow what she considers an impossible dream. A scout, a famous former player named Waldemar De Brito (Milton Gonçalves), having seen Dico play incredibly well against a better equipped team, sends home his business card with the request for a meeting. Much to the boy’s disappointment, she merely puts it away in a drawer.

It is a different matter with Dondinho, who had been a soccer player himself, but apparently had not been successful. He is now a janitor, reduced to cleaning the toilets and bedpans at a hospital, where Dico joins him. They spend their lunch breaks in a compound in which a large mango tree towers above them. Dondinho practices maneuvering a large mango in the air as if it were a soccer ball. At first his son ignores him, but eventually joins in. This serves as his own training regimen, with a smashed fruit soiling him when he makes a mistake. “You must practice,” he tells his son. “Everything else will come.” Thus the boy grows skillful in the system of play called Ginga, which he and his friends had played on the streets.

Dating back to their African slave heritage, Ginga is a combination of martial arts and football in which the ball is maneuvered through the air as much as on the ground. It involves much imagination and playfulness, with more than a touch of the dance. However, coaches, regarding it as primitive, unworthy of comparison to the European style of advancing the ball on the ground, had forbidden its use. We saw this in the earlier youth league game when young Dico rebelled and started playing it that way, thereby bringing his team (the name of which was literally “The Shoeless Ones”) from a scoreless situation to a near win.

When his mother comes around to accepting his dream of a soccer career, the teenager becomes a member of a regional and then the national team. Coach Vicente Feola lectures the youth on the necessity of playing European style because much of the criticism of the 1950 losing team was that they had played in the Ginga style. It is obvious that the recruiter De Brito also believes in the Ginga style, but he is not in a position to convince the coach. He does encourage Dico, who by now has played well enough to attract a following of fans. It is their chanting of “Pelé! Pelé!” that leads him to accept his nickname. In one scene De Brito repeats what the father had said to Pelé, namely that he should embrace his heritage and accept who he is, regardless of the opinion of others.

Jose (Diego Boneta), the boy who had given Dico the humiliating name of Pelé is also a member of the team, and remains his enemy. Thus the boy is up against his own coach and many team members—and this is by no means all of the underdog elements of this film. The Swedish team members, whom the Brazilians are to play in Sweden, are depicted as arrogant and nasty, coached by a man even more so, George Raynor (Colm Meaney). He is shown as so condescending that he insults the guest team and their coach at the press conference, leaving Coach Feola speechless. Then in a game leading up to the final match-off, Pelé sprains his knee and is incapacitated for several days. Thus our hero enters the final game with an injury that is still painful and with the possibility that the knee might give out at any moment. Assuming all of this is true (one never knows in these “based on” or “inspired by a true story” what is embellishment for dramatic effect!), this is quite an underdog story!

Critics, citing the filmmakers lack of “originality” and labeling it “formulaic,” have been very unkind to to it. However, not being so sophisticated in cinema matters, I thoroughly enjoyed it, becoming very caught up in its many emotional scenes, especially Coach Feola’s pep talk in the locker room in which he says that the have made the sport “a beautiful game”—every bit as inspiring as “Win one for the Gipper.”

As we see, racial prejudice is not confined to the United States. It might take different forms, but it still as odious, with those thinking themselves superior blocking the way of those with darker skins. Overcoming this requires the black Brazilians adopting the same attitude as the Black Power Movement of the 60s here in the USA, or the Black Lives Matter Movement of today. Winning in soccer, as in any sport, is a matter of inner conviction, as well as of physical ability and training. I am a fan of neither the world or American forms of “football,” but this film certainly makes me agree that it is “a beautiful game”—and the colorful cinematography of Matthew Libatique and skillful moves of the young cast on the filed add to this feeling.

Critics have charged that the filmmakers should have provided more background information, and yet there are many touching family segments, along with those of his friends playing in the streets or in the youth league. In one rain-soaked sequence one of Pelé’s friends, while they are hiding in a hillside hole from some men whose peanuts they have stolen in order to buy soccer shoes, dies in a mudslide. We see the boy’s closeness to his family as he bids each one farewell when he first leaves home to join a team in a distant city. A little later they are surprised when a small refrigerator is delivered: he might be far away, but he keeps his needy family close to his heart. We see the gradual progression of his mother’s support, from zero when she drops the scout’s business card in a drawer to her taking it out so they can call the man. There are many shots of her listening to her son’s games in the kitchen, whereas her husband is listening with a group in a public place. At long last she leaves the kitchen and joins him and his friends, perhaps a subtle hint that she is emerging from her culture’s patriarchy.

The film might not be “original” in any cinematic sense, but it is still entertaining and inspiring! Those working with youth could have a great time watching and discussing it with them.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the June issue of VP.

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