Released in 2002, City of God, directed by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund, has achieved cult status. This Brazilian film has one of the most terrific opening sequences, which among other things involves a boisterous group of teens, indulging themselves to a game of football in a favela in Rio De Janerio. Through the deft voice over, we are introduced to the motley bunch who play vital roles in the film’s labyrinth-like narrative. The sequence sets the tone for the crime saga on various counts. Firstly, we are introduced to the central protagonist, who has risen from the slums, and secondly in a more subtle way, the film makers have showcased the popularity of slum football amongst Brazilian youth. It therefore does not come as a surprise that one of football’s all-time greats — Pele — too has developed his love for the beautiful game by playing in the slums.
Like in City of God, Michael and Jeff Zimbalist’s biopic, Pele: Birth of a Legend, too kicks off with a similar sequence, showing a 10-year-old Pele playing football with his friends in a favela. However, the similarity between these two rather disparate films ends here. The City of God is essentially a high voltage, yet nuanced crime drama. On the other hand, Pele: Birth of a Legend, as the tagline suggests, is a biopic, celebrating the early life of one of the greatest footballers on the planet. Like most sports films, it treads the familiar path of celebrating the triumph of human spirit. The start is promising though, as we are introduced to that horror night in 1950, when Brazil bow out of the World Cup to Uruguay. The loss had scarred the football-crazy nation. Seeing his distraught father (played with conviction by Seu Jorge), a 10-year-old Pele plans to bring the Cup of Joy back to his home country.
Instead of building on such an interesting premise, the film plods its way in a bid to mirror the bigger picture of a nation in turmoil. In doing so, the film makers fail to depict the detailed vignettes — essential for any biopic. One of the recurrent theme in this film is Ginga, a term associated with the radical style of football practised and perfected by people of African descent in Brazil. Ginga, also has historical and cultural connotations, which are well documented here. Another major disappointment is the pedestrian performances, especially from the child actors. This, in effect, waters down some of the crucial scenes in the film. The Zimbalists redeem themselves on a few counts, however, namely in the scene in which Pele’s father (Jorge) helps his son hone his skills as a footballer. Jorge steals the show here with his largely understated approach. Perhaps, the biggest applause for the film was reserved towards the fag end, when our Man-of-the-Moment — Pele — makes a fleeting appearance in a solitary scene.
The film meanders towards the second half and ends on a tepid note — with our 17-year-old protagonist playing a key role in Brazil lifting the World Cup title in 1958 — eight years after their ignominy against Uruguay. In doing so, he also manages to fulfill his childhood dream. All too linear and straightforward. Pele: Birth of a Legend, is a glorious opportunity missed. It had all the ingredients for a humongous biopic. With Pele, the canvas was always going to be broad. But the simplistic treatment, followed by the feeble performances by the cast, makes this film a huge let down.