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Monday, August 22, 2016

Pele: The Birth of a Legend

"Legendary", he may well be, but there's nothing "legendary" about this flat, uninspired biopic of the Brazillian football great. 

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

The true story of legendary football player, Edson Arantes do Nascimento – or Pele as he is better known - that his early life from childhood poverty in the slums of Brazil to redefining Brazilian football forever with his appearance as the youngest ever player in the 1958 World Cup.

What we thought

There's clearly a good film to made about the life and career of Pele but, sadly, Pele: The Birth of a Legend is very much not it.

As someone who is not now and will almost definitely never be a soccer fan, Pele does have to work twice as hard to win me over but there's something telling that the only times the film came even close to holding my attention was during its nicely cinematic football matches. Not only are these scenes surprisingly exciting (I usually find watching real football matches to be the visual equivalent of water torture) but they do give you a good idea of why Pele was such a big deal and how and why he almost singlehandedly rewrote the “beautiful game” for decades to come.

Unfortunately, though the rest of the film is filled to the gills with good intentions, gee-whiz optimism and a typically lovely score by A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire), it's a serious dud as a piece of storytelling. Written and directed by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, who have previously worked almost exclusively as documentary filmmakers, Pele: The Birth of a Legend is a disastrous mix of bland characterization, wooden acting, unimaginative direction and howlingly awful, cliche-drenched dialogue.

Corniness is part and parcel of this particular genre (the life-affirming sports biopic, for those not keeping score at home), but it pushes the corny sentimentality to such extremes that it makes the Mighty Ducks look like the Wrestler by comparison. It's utter lack of a sense of humour or a sense of its own naffness certainly doesn't help matters either.

No scene better encapsulates everything that is wrong with the film than the one where Pele's mentor tries to teach him about the beauty and rich tradition that is inherent in their “Ginga Style” of football. It's a scene that touches on Brazil's colonialist, racist, slavery-driven past and how the black slaves who escaped to live in the wilderness of Brazil's jungles developed an exceptional new martial art that, when slavery finally ended, was then funneled into the way they play football. It should be the emotional and thematic centrepiece of the film that directly feeds into what made Pele such a sensation but my reaction to this supposedly moving scene was barely controlled laughter. I'm not proud of this fact but with a scene this badly executed; this much like a goofy, exposition-heavy flashback in a particularly terrible martial arts movie, the film didn't exactly leave me much choice.

And then there's the problem of the acting. However much I feel bad for dumping on a film that is this heartfelt and this sweet-natured, I feel doubly dickish for pointing out how bad the largely amateur cast are. This is, however, somewhat mitigated by the fact that it's probably not really their fault. There's a very real sense that these Brazilian actors struggle to deliver lines that aren't just badly written but are written in a language that is either, at best, their second-language or one they barely speak at all. And it's not just the amateurs. Vincent D'Onofrio, who is clearly a very fine actor, fares little better thanks to his being saddled with trying to pull off an authentic Brazilian accent and kind of failing miserably. With all its flaws, Pele would clearly have been significantly better had it just been filmed in Portuguese.

Ultimately, I'm sure a truly great film about this legendary athlete will come our way eventually but, in the meantime, might I suggest Rocky (or Creed), Cool Runnings or the more recent Eddie the Eagle for your uplifting sports-movie kicks.

And, while we're on topic, can someone please explain to me why we call football soccer in this country? I understand why America does it but unless there's some sort of underground sport that involves throwing a severed foot into a basketball hoop, South Africa doesn't have another game called “football”, do we? I don't really care about sports but I. Don't. Get. It.

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