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Review: 'Pelé: Birth of a Legend' Charts a Superstar's Rise

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“Pelé: Birth of a Legend” is for the love of the game and the fiery tempers it inspires.


Leonardo Lima Carvalho, foreground, in the biopic “Pelé: Birth of a Legend.”CreditIque Esteves/Ifc Films

In Jeff and Michael Zimbalist’s footballer biopic, “Pelé: Birth of a Legend,”we are endlessly told of the importance of what is known in Portuguese as “ginga”: a distinctly Brazilian swing and style of play. Ginga notwithstanding, this celebration of a soccer superstar’s rise from poverty to national treasure is more a familiar tale for fans to nod along with than a sports drama with a real kick.

As a child, Edson Arantes do Nascimento (Leonardo Lima Carvalho) kicks the ball around with fellow ragtag underdogs wearing homemade uniforms. Rich kids taunt him and nickname him Pelé, a moniker he comes to embrace. His father (played by the singer Seu Jorge), a soccer phenom himself and later a janitor, schools him in “the beautiful game,” at one point using mangoes in lieu of balls.

Pelé’s childhood is marred by a double heartbreak: a pal’s death and Brazil’s 1950 loss in the World Cup. Yet at 16, he snags a place on Brazil’s national team for the 1958 World Cup. Vincent D’Onofrio luxuriates in a Portuguese accent as the coach of the national team, who is initially disdainful of what he calls the “primitive” ginga style but then exhorts Pelé (now played by Kevin de Paula Rosa) and his teammates to be themselves.

The film’s director of photography, Matthew Libatique, makes “Pelé” more than an eye-moistening anthem for a built-in global audience. Working around the screenplay’s childlike writing, this dynamic cinematographer (known for his work with Spike Lee and Darren Aronofsky) hustles to turn the sensation of movement into the film’s driving force. He comes closer to evoking ginga than any of the gushy dialogue or soundtrack cues.


Pelé: Birth of a Legend
Directors: Jeff Zimbalist, Michael Zimbalist
Writers: Jeff Zimbalist, Michael Zimbalist
Stars: Vincent D'Onofrio, Rodrigo Santoro, Diego Boneta, Seu Jorge, Colm Meaney
Running Time: 1h 47m
Genres: Biography, Drama, Sport