Movie review of “Pelé: Birth of a Legend”: The film is hagiography — but appealing hagiography thanks to a compelling performance by Kevin de Paula, the young Brazilian actor who plays the soccer icon. Rating: 2.5 stars out of 4.
Inspiration, old-fashioned style, is the main course being served in “Pelé: Birth of a Legend.” In essence commissioned by the soccer icon, who is credited as one of the picture’s executive producers, “Pelé” is hagiography. But appealing hagiography.
There’s a sunniness to it — literally, as director of photography Matthew Libatique repeatedly backdrops his images with flaring shots of the sun — that manifests itself most prominently in scenes where the kid who will become the legend finds his groove on the soccer pitch.
There’s pure joy in those scenes as Brazilian-born Kevin de Paula, making his acting debut as the impoverished teen who will become known to the world as Pelé, demonstrates the acrobatic physicality that was the icon’s signature playing style.
Movie Review ★★½
‘Pelé: Birth of a Legend,’ with Kevin de Paula, Leonardo Lima Carvalho, Mariana Nunes, Seu Jorge, Vincent D’Onofrio. Written and directed by Jeffrey and Michael Zimbalist. 107 minutes. Rated PG for thematic elements, some smoking and language. Varsity.
The picture is basically the story of young Edson Arantes do Nascimento rising out of hardscrabble circumstances (his mother scrubs floors, his father cleans toilets) and overcoming racism over being a black youth playing a sport that until that time was dominated by white players both in his native Brazil and around the world.
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The script by writer-directors (and brothers) Jeffrey and Michael Zimbalist explicates how Pelé’s style, ginga, derived from the martial art of capoeira, which originated among the country’s African slaves as a means to fight back against their Portuguese slaveholders. His personal struggle against racism therefore resonates deeply with black Brazilians, as “Pelé” underscores with scene after scene of his exultant fans cheering his exploits.
Beginning in 1950, when Brazil’s loss in the World Cup devastated the nation (especially since Brazil hosted the competition), the picture tracks Pelé’s development as a soccer-mad kid of 9 (Leonardo Lima Carvalho plays the younger incarnation) to his improbable rise through the sport’s ranks to his triumph at the 1958 World Cup where, at the age of 17, he stunned the world with his abilities and was key to Brazil’s victory.
Along the way he suffers reverses and battles self-doubt, but inspirational speeches from his father (“Just enjoy yourself,” “Be yourself”) and others and his own innate abilities carry him to glory.