In his 1992 soccer-fan memoir “Fever Pitch,” Nick Hornby recalled his first exposure to one of the great Pelé-led Brazilian World Cup teams, writing: “Brazil ruined it for all of us. They had revealed a kind of Platonic ideal that nobody, not even the Brazilians, would ever be able to find again.” Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist’s English-language “Pelé: Birth of a Legend,” which dramatizes the star player’s first World Cup triumph, tries its best to visually convey just how revolutionary Pele’s arrival on the scene must have felt, but it’s continually hamstrung by an uninspiring, ultra-traditionalist narrative.
Shot in vivid color by “Black Swan” d.p. Matthew Libatique, with skillful editing and a rousingly rhythmic score from A.R. Rahman, the film nonetheless tackles the soccer legend’s early life with all the stolidness of an old-school bootstrap melodrama, yet its younger target audience should be able to appreciate the flash, and youth soccer coaches could do worse for a post-game outing.
Though most of the picture’s action revolves around the 1958 World Cup — the first of the Brazilians’ five championships, and Pelé’s international debut at 17 years old — the first half hour takes place eight years prior. That was the year Brazil lost the World Cup final to Uruguay on home soil, which quickly became the nation’s formative sporting trauma (supplanted in scale by the team’s loss to Germany two years ago). Young Pele (Leonardo Lima Carvalho) listens to the radio action from the roof above a bar, and promises his despondent father (Seu Jorge) that he’ll win the cup for him someday, to the dismay of his soccer-averse mother (Mariana Nunes).
Pelé — born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, the “Pelé” moniker was initially a schoolboy insult — grew up poor, and the film tracks his soccer-related favela adventures with the neighborhood boys like a Portuguese-accented “Our Gang.” Amid lots of cutesy mischief, Pelé and his buddies enter a youth competition, their team nicknamed “the shoeless ones,” and manage to advance all the way to the finals before a squad of upper-class bullies hands them a defeat.
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It’s almost enough to convince him to swear off the sport, until his father — now taking him along to work as a janitor at a hospital — teaches him the finer points of ball control by juggling ripe mangoes. Flash-forward a few years, and the teenage Pelé (Kevin de Paula Rosa) carves out a spot on professional club Santos, yet his tricky, capoeira-inspired street soccer style — called “ginga” — finds little favor with his coaches, particularly the national team manager Vicente Feola (Vincent D’Onofrio, never quite sure how much of a Brazilian flavor to add to his line readings), who hopes to avoid another World Cup embarrassment by emulating the disciplined, tactics-obsessed Europeans.
No one actually whispers “use the ginga” in Pelé’s ear, but it might as well be the Force, and his struggle to stay in the coach’s good graces while playing in his native style provides the film’s recurring conflict.
The dialogue is consistently awkward and the plotting strictly formulaic, though fans of the sport will have fun spotting the famous faces portrayed — including Felipe Simas as Falstaffian winger Garrincha and Fernando Caruso as the grumpy midfielder Zito — and the film’s three editors keep the on-pitch action moving kinetically. Both actors tasked with playing the title role seem to have been picked more for their Peléan looks and soccer skills than for their dramatic instincts, but frankly, that serves the film just fine. Seu Jorge turns in the movie’s best work, while Colm Meany once again gets to play a villainized version of a famous soccer manager, adding the name of Swedish team skipper George Raynor right next to Don Revie, of “The Damned United,” on his resume.