Brazilian soccer icon Pelé was legendary not simply for his transcendent ability on the field, but for his unbridled effusiveness. As such, what makes writer-directors Jeff and Michael Zimbalist’s Pele: Birth of a Legend so profoundly disappointing isn’t so much its embrace of the usual sports-movie clichés, among them the endless platitudes masquerading as wisdom, than its conspicuous absence of joy. In covering Pelé’s formative years, in which he rose from an impoverished upbringing to help Brazil win the 1958 FIFA World Cup, the Zimbalist brothers repeatedly opt for a somber sentimentality, one that Kevin de Paula, who plays the soccer prodigy from ages 13 to 17, imitates by seeming perpetually beset more by a grim determination than athletic elation. The beautiful game, as Pelé called football (or soccer to us Americans), has never felt like such a sedate slog.
Birth of a Legend’s thematic linchpin becomes ginga, described in several mawkish monologues as a colorful and powerful style of play that’s part and parcel of Brazilian values. Straining to put this into greater cultural context, several of Pelé’s mentors, among them his father, Dondinho (Seu Jorge), instruct him to embrace the concept of ginga, not simply to improve his play, but to reclaim this mode of expression for his country’s people. That reclamation, however, never resonates because the film fails to demonstrate how Brazil en masse surrendered its devotion to ginga in the first place and what it means to the nation when Pelé resuscitates it. The closest the film gets to articulating the importance of ginga on the populace is another player on the Brazilian national team, Jose (Diego Boneta). A spoiled rich kid who’s apparently ashamed of his heritage and yearns to be European, Joe becomes enlightened by Pelé’s play, but the thin subplot unintentionally suggests a broad comedy of manners as opposed to incisive social commentary.
In the end, ginga is nothing more than a device for dramatic conflict, as Pelé’s series of stubborn coaches demand that he conform to a playing style that shuns any display of eccentricity, which Pele forlornly agrees to, until the team struggles, prompting him to break ranks and be rewarded for his efforts with victory. But it all plays less as a triumph of the spirit than his merely proving his coaches wrong, a kind of petulance that prevents the on-field sequences from being appreciated as a celebration of his individuality. Pelé’s true sense of self is really only glimpsed in a flashback where, too poor to afford an actual soccer ball, he trains with mangoes. This sequence visually illustrates how his roots directly informed the way he played, an evocation of ginga that Birth of a Legend never duplicates in such a warmly effective manner again. Here he feels like the joyful original the rest of the film never lets him be.