Many biopics, especially those about sports heroes, follow their subjects well into the prime of adulthood. “Pelé: Birth of a Legend” abandons that trend, stopping while the soccer player who would go on to become a legend is still a teenager. Sibling directors Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, who also co-wrote the screenplay, offer only glimpses of Pelé’s greatness, instead focusing on how Brazil fought against thinly veiled bigotry in order to achieve its first World Cup victory in 1958. The formulaic film hits all the tired, familiar notes of a feel-good story, yet it’s just rousing enough that it may energize Olympic soccer fans anticipating the upcoming Summer Games in Rio.
In the 1950 World Cup final, host Brazil suffered an agonizing defeat by Uruguay. Young Pelé (Leonardo Lima Carvalho) listens to the radio broadcast while spying on his father (Seu Jorge) and friends from a rooftop. That bird’s-eye view of adult disappointment had a significant impact on the boy, who promises his father that he will deliver a national victory. These early sections present a striking contrast in class as well as race: While playing in a youth tournament against a fair-skinned team with nice uniforms, Pelé and his friends — black, brown and mixed-race — can’t afford shoes.
The divide between the teams also extends to their style of play. Pelé prefers ginga, an acrobatic form of ballhandling that will eventually make him a worldwide celebrity, while the more affluent team plays the traditional, conservative style that dominated European soccer at the time. The Zimbalist brothers’ storytelling is simple. They set up frustrating situations in which Pelé is not allowed to play ginga, only to have him rebel his way to victory. This back-and-forth dynamic continues until Pelé is an older adolescent — now played by Kevin de Paula — on the cusp of leading Brazil to its first World Cup victory in Sweden.
“Pelé” frames its subject’s talent as a form of divinity. In scene after scene, unimpressed spectators are gradually overcome by a joy approaching awe. The pattern gets repetitive; it’s already something of a cliche the first time we see it. What’s worse, the camera muddles the elegant ballhandling that Pelé was known for. Medium shots of his moves obscure parts of his body, so that we never get a clear look at how brilliantly he was able to glide past defenders. The actors who play him may capture his radiant smile, but there’s little visual evidence to suggest what he’s so happy about.
Greater focus on the supporting characters — some of whom are just as intriguing as Pelé himself — would also have made for a more robust film. Jorge — whom some will recognize from “City of God” and “The Life Aquatic” — plays the athlete’s father with a mixture of pride and resignation. The father was also a soccer player, yet ginga cost him his career, so he’s careful about how much support to give his son. In the role of Brazil’s World Cup coach, Vincent D’Onofrio — complete with exaggerated accent — brings a slow-burn frustration with the superiority complex of his team’s Swedish opponents, supplying “Pelé” with its most moving scene. The locker-room speech may not be that rousing, but it’s the coach’s character that inspires his team to a deeper, moral victory.
In real life, Pelé led a rich life after that 1958 victory, filling a role halfway between athletic superstar and worldwide ambassador. Yet he was not immune to controversy, having been investigated by the Brazilian government for associating with leftist groups. None of this is in the film, however. It might have been interesting to see him in the mid-1970s, when Pelé played for the New York Cosmos, in an effort to popularize soccer in the United States. (He even played at RFK Stadium against the Washington Diplomats.)
“Pelé: Birth of a Legend” is too earnest and single-minded to be hagiographic, and the final moments are moving in spite of their predictable trajectories. The story of Brazilian soccer’s ascension to the world stage is a remarkable one, and the film would have benefitted if the Zimbalists had found a way to add a bit of depth — or even doubt — to the legend.
PG. At the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market. Contains coarse language, some smoking and mature thematic material. 107 minutes.