You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Pelé: Birth of a Legend’

Bright as a box of Wheaties, with about as much flavor, this biopic of the Brazilian soccer star plays it by the rules.


Kevin de Paula Rosa, Vincent D’Onofrio, Seu Jorge, Leonardo Lima Carvalho, Rodrigo Santino, Colm Meany, Mariana Nunes, Diego Boneta, Felipe Simas, Fernando Caruso

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0995868/

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.

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Pelé: Birth of a Legend'

Reviewed online, Los Angeles, April 28, 2016. MPAA rating: PG. Running time: 107 MIN.


An IFC Films release of an Imagine Entertainment, Seine Pictures presentation, in association with Legends 10. Produced by Brian Grazer, Ivan Orlic, Colin Wilson, Kim Roth, Isabelle Tanugi. Executive producers, Michael Rosenberg, Guy East, Paul Kemsley, Benjamin Mathes.


Directed, written by Jeff Zimbalist, Michael Zimbalist. Camera (color), Matthew Libatique; editors, Luis Carballar, Naomi Geraghty, Glen Scantlebury; music, A.R. Rahman; production designer, Dominic Watkins; costume designer, Ines Salgado; art director, Marcos Flaksman; sound, Jose Mureau Louzeiro; re-recording mixers, Deb Adair, Cameron Frankley; assistant director, Daniela Carvalho; casting, Gail Stevens, Mary Vernieu, Michelle Wade Byrd.


Kevin de Paula Rosa, Vincent D’Onofrio, Seu Jorge, Leonardo Lima Carvalho, Rodrigo Santino, Colm Meany, Mariana Nunes, Diego Boneta, Felipe Simas, Fernando Caruso

More Film

  • The Great Outdoor documentary series about

    Farm to Picture: Documentary Series 'The Great Outdoor' Chronicles a Life Gone to Pot

    Cannabis cultivation in the Emerald Triangle, the area in Northern California that has long been a go-to for growers, has a starring role in a new documentary series called “The Great Outdoor.” Funded by Flow Kana, one of the state’s leading cannabis flower brands, filmed by David Zlutnick, and executive-produced by Flow Kana co-founder Flavia [...]

  • 1982 El Gouna Festival

    Egypt's El Gouna Film Festival Puts Arab Helmers at Center Stage

    The upbeat state of Arab cinema will be on the screen and in the balmy air at Egypt’s El Gouna Film Festival (Sept. 19-27), which is steadily gaining traction in its stated ambition to become a key platform and solid driver for Middle-East producers. “This year was one the best for Arab cinema,” says Intishal [...]

  • Star Skipper Paramount Animation

    Meet Star Skipper, Paramount Animation's Magical New Trademark Logo Character

    Studio logos are powerful signals to audiences.  Multiple generations of moviegoers flipping through channels or scanning streaming titles have frozen at the sight of a desk lamp hopping across the screen, because it means a Pixar movie is about to play. Likewise, when a young boy lounging inside a crescent moon casts his fishing line into [...]

  • Sybil

    Cannes Competition Movie 'Sibyl' Finds North American Home With Music Box (EXCLUSIVE)

    Music Box Films has acquired the U.S. and Canadian rights to Justine Triet’s darkly comic drama “Sibyl,” which competed at Cannes and had its North American premiere at Toronto in the Special Presentation section. Represented in international markets by mk2, the film follows the ambiguous relationship between Sibyl, a jaded psychotherapist (Virginie Efira, “An Impossible [...]

  • Kent Jones Directs 'Diane'

    Kent Jones to Exit New York Film Festival (EXCLUSIVE)

    In a surprise move, New York Film Festival’s director and selection committee chair of seven years Kent Jones will step down following this year’s 57th edition, which runs Sept. 27-Oct. 13. The departure comes as Jones’ feature filmmaking career is taking off. Issues of potential conflicts of interest have arisen as his work has moved [...]

  • Ava-Mark-Split

    Ava DuVernay, Mark Ruffalo Selected for SAG-AFTRA Foundation Honors

    Ava DuVernay and Mark Ruffalo have been selected by the SAG-AFTRA Foundation for its fourth Annual Patron of the Artists Awards. The awards will be presented on Nov. 7 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. The show benefits the nonprofit SAG-AFTRA Foundation and is not televised. Previous SAG-AFTRA Foundation Patron of the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content