Sunday, May 29, 2016

Pelé: Birth of a Legend: Review

Let’s start with the obvious problem. A Pelé biopic after all these years—and it’s in English? The least that the film’s directors, Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, could have done was attempt a Slumdog Millionaire: 15 minutes in the characters’ mother tongue and English thereafter. But all anyone speaks—from little kids in the favelas to Swedish journalists—in Pelé: Birth of a Legend is English. Which is no surprise, given that the film is made with Hollywood money, for an audience that calls the sport soccer, not football.

The first scene shows the 10-year-old Pelé and his friends kicking a ball through the favela without allowing it to touch the ground, a style of practice that the Brazilian national team has made famous. It’s an energetic opening, played a little too broadly by the kids, but fun nevertheless. Things start getting impossibly broad, though, when Pelé is mocked by a rich boy whose home his mother works at, and later, destroys him and his teammates in a local game. Years later, the rich kid, José “Mazolla” Altafini, and Pelé both find themselves on the national team.

Pelé did come from grinding poverty so maybe, just maybe, his mother might have worked at Mazolla’s house. But there are smarter ways to tell a story without resorting to such simplistic antagonisms. It isn’t just what the film suggests but how it says it. To convince us that he changed the outlook of the Brazilian team (thus overhauling their entire game plan) just before the 1958 World Cup final, the film shows Pelé’s teammates, on his urging, recreating the opening sequence, this time kicking a ball through a Swedish hotel without letting it touch the ground. It’s ridiculous, and when the real Pelé turns up in the middle of it all, the genuflection is dispiriting.

The immense responsibility of portraying Pelé falls on Leonardo Lima Carvalho and Kevin de Paula, who play him at age 10, and from 13 through 17, respectively. Both actors have visible skills with the ball, even if they’re aided by an inordinate amount of slo-mo and visual trickery. Vincent D’Onofrio has walked a thin line between dramatic acting scenery-chewing and outrageous hamming in recent times; his turn as the Brazilian national coach is notable for the accent he sports, which is less intelligible than the speech of any of the Brazilian actors in the movie. A.R. Rahman’s score is flashy and fairly unremarkable; the same can be said for Matthew Libatique’s cinematography. All in all, the sort of hagiographic biopic one expects when the person being profiled is the executive producer.

This review appeared in Mint.

No comments: