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"Pelé: Birth of a Legend" is a flawed, but inspiring film.
Brazilian teams play a style of soccer all their own. (Yeah, I called it soccer. Gimmie a break. I'm an American.) They call that style "ginga". It's a very fluid kind of play that emphasizes creative ball control. Some call this style of play "flamboyant". Others dismiss it as "trick plays". Brazilians simply think of it as their heritage. The Urban Dictionary's definition of ginga states, in part, "Ginga is creativity... the opposite of mechanical soccer. It is having fun with the ball. It is grace. It is being fluid and coordinated. IT IS SOUL. IT IS DANCE." A June 15, 2014 "New York Times" article explains the development of ginga this way: " an imaginative style of play that made competition and gratifying playfulness inseparable, with blacks and people of mixed race rising from exclusion and becoming its main protagonists." Ginga is a unique mixing of the skills of samba dancers with Brazilian martial arts fighters, all applied to the game of soccer, turning it into, as the Brazilians call it, "the beautiful game", while also celebrating Brazil's different races and cultures. The focus on ginga in the biopic "Pelé: Birth of a Legend" (PG, 1:47) educates its audience, celebrates that style of soccer and captivates Movie Fans with the true rags-to-riches story of the greatest soccer player ever, a man known all around the world simply as Pelé.
As the film opens, the nearly 10-year-old Pelé (born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, and called "Dico" by his family and friends) is watching a television broadcast as his native Brazil loses the 1950 World Cup to Uruguay. Brazil's loss was a huge upset, a phrase which also describes the emotions of Brazil's soccer fans (which was basically everybody). The entire country was shocked, humiliated and demoralized. Dico (Leonardo Lima Carvalho) promises his father, a former soccer player known as Dondinho (played by Brazilian musician/actor Seu Jorge), that he, Dico, will one day bring Brazil a World Cup Championship.
Dico's family is so poor that Dico doesn't even own a soccer ball or even a pair of shoes, but the kid manages to develop his natural talent anyway. Under his father's tutelage, he learns ball-handling by juggling and kicking grapefruits and he plays on a local team with his friends. Their team is literally called "The Shoeless Ones" and is mercilessly mocked by the town's rich kids, who single out Dico for a special measure of abuse and start calling him "Pelé". It's a made-up name which is meant to be an insult, and Dico hates the name, but as he works through his anger by helping his team play better than expected on the soccer field, the name sticks, and "Pelé" becomes synonymous with Dico and his amazing talent.
Continuing to hone his skills on his own time and play brilliantly on the field in spite of having to endure prejudice and personal tragedy, Pelé (played as a teenager by Kevin de Paula) is recruited and mentored by former player Waldemar De Brito (Milton Gonçalves). Pelé's talent gets him a spot on a professional soccer club, Santos FC, and then on Brazil's national team, all before he reached the age of 17. On the national team, Pelé's coach is Vicente Feola (Vincent D'Onofrio), the latest in a series of coaches who tries to beat Pelé's individuality out of him and force him to play a more traditional and "sophisticated" European style. Many Brazilians blamed the ginga style of play for the 1950 World Cup loss, but ginga is Pelé's strength. Pelé finds himself struggling with his coach's instruction, and an old adversary turned teammate, plus a significant knee injury, all while the national team prepares for the 1958 World Cup tournament and a possible championship matchup against the heavily-favored team representing the host country of Sweden, coached by the arrogant and condescending George Raynor (Colm Meaney).
"Pelé: Birth of a Legend" represents formulaic and unrefined filmmaking, but still manages to inspire on multiple levels. Co-written and co-directed by brothers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist (both working on their first feature film), the movie follows the tried-and-true pattern of most sports movies, but suffers from some minor issues of technique. The script sometimes stops short of completing its thoughts and the film is a bit over-edited, making the viewer feel like something is missing in a few of the scenes. Some characters are underdeveloped and some of the acting is shaky, but the main characters (especially D'Onofrio, Jorge and de Paula) all give strong performances. The film spends too much time on Pelé's childhood and not enough time on his rise through the ranks of Brazilian soccer, but does convey why Pelé was so good and wisely culminates with the '58 World Cup, at which point it's clear that all the pieces are finally in place for Pelé's eventual worldwide fame and unparalleled success. In spite of the film's lack of originality and other relatively minor problems, the Zimbalist brothers and their cast and crew give us plenty to shout about during the film's third act and leaves us with important lessons about determination, resilience and playing to our strengths, as well as the importance and strength of diversity. As much as I enjoyed "Pelé: Birth of a Legend" (especially its emotional ending), after fairly weighing all of its strengths and weaknesses, the most I can give it is a mild recommendation: "B"
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