Pelé is to soccer what Michael Jordan is to basketball, which given “the beautiful game’s” global reach puts him in contention for the world’s most influential athlete.
He’s given expectedly glorifying treatment in Pelé: Birth of a Legend, a biopic that begins with a sight familiar to anyone who watched the World Cup two years ago: devastated Brazilians. Here, the national team has just lost in the finals of the 1950 edition (which, like 2014, was hosted by Brazil) to Uruguay, prompting our nine-year-old hero to promise eventual victory for his country.
The boy (real name: Edson Arantes do Nascimento) lives in a little-known section of São Paulo where Portuguese apparently doesn’t exist and every man, woman, and child speaks perfect English. (Vincent D’Onofrio, cast for some reason as coach Vicente Feola, goes to the trouble of sporting a supposed Brazilian accent.) Early scenes feature many a slo-mo montage of Pelé and his friends showing off their preternatural ball-handling skills, using their urban environs as an interactive arena. It’s a familiar invocation of aw-shucks youthfulness, the kind that would feel more at home in an animated Disney movie than it does in a biopic with any pretense of verisimilitude — glossing over reality only serves to cheapen Pelé’s singular achievements.
All of this is a lead-up to 1958, when Pelé became the youngest player to lead his country to…well, let’s just say he’s a young man of his word. Co-directors Jeff and Michael Zimbalist stick to the playbook throughout, from typical moments of uplift to a Pelé cameo only slightly less fan-serving than Stan Lee’s Marvel spots.
Pelé: Birth of a Legend
Directed by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist
Opens May 13, IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas