Back to documentary town, as I await the arrival of the Dublin Film Festival’s catalogue this weekend. Plenty in this one to draw interest from someone like me: a examination of one the true icons of global sport, a man whose footballing career remains the baseline for other superstars of the beautiful game to be measured against, but who had plenty otherwise in his life that can draw attention. The affairs, the political influence and subsequent career, the impotence advertisements: it suffices to say that any documentary of Pelé will have more than a wide ranger of things from which to choose 90 minutes worth of material.
It’s in narrowing things down to that 90 minute level that the trouble will arise. Netflix has already come up with one humdrum sporting biopic this year, and comparison will inevitable be drawn between Pelé, the product of a directorial team with little in the way of spectacular background, and the excellent Diego Maradona of 2018, which really did set the bar for these kinds of confessional evaluations of footballing legends quite high. Pelé, on and off the field, was one of those very exceptional people more than worthy of this kind of project: but was the final product worthy of him, what he accomplished, and what he represented?
In the late 1950’s, the greatest football player of his generation emerged from Brazilian poverty, to set the world alight in the canary yellow jersey. In the course of twelve success-laden, yet sometimes tumultuous, years, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, always to be better known as Pelé, led his country to the pinnacle of the footballing world, even as events at home overshadowed it all. In this documentary, Pelé’s international career is the main focus, as will as the effect the Brazilian team’s victories had on the nation, its crumbling democracy and, later, its military dictatorship.
Pelé is, unfortunately, an underwhelming affair. There are a few things that it does right, but a lot more that it doesn’t. Documentaries of this type have a duty, to the goal of being entertaining if absolutely nothing else, to either shed light on an underappreciated aspect of the subject or to challenge the subject on something intrinsic to their lives. There’s heaps to talk about in either regard with Pelé, but the documentary that bears his name makes the most out of neither chance. A single scene where the elderly Pelé sits with his old teammates to eat a meal has more to draw my interest than anything that came before or after.
The documentary does not want to spend much time at all on Pelé’s life pre-football, or post-football for that matter. His childhood and adolescence go by in a flash, with sentimental references to being a shoeshine (the modern day Pelé recreates the tune he would bang out on his shine box) and only a passing nod to his father, also a professional footballer. We go from Pelé being born into poverty to going off to play in the 1958 World Cup in the course of a few scant minutes: the opportunity to learn something important about where he came from is lost. It wasn’t the last time either: Pelé’s many marriages are only given a couple of minutes in the middle of the experience, as do his many acknowledged affairs and children from those affairs. For Pelé, the man himself was a footballer primarily, and more than that an international footballer: everything else, the stuff the audience might want to know the most about because they know so much about the football side, is simply deemed not important enough. His American sojourn, his time as a Brazilian minister, his campaigning for Sepp Blatter, even him as an icon for POC, anything else is ignored in favour of the aspects of Pele’s life we all know the most about. I did not feel like I really learned anything important about Pelé in this film’s 90 minutes.
Since football, and more specifically international football, is the focus, we will have to content ourselves with commenting on that. Pelé’s talent on the international stage is immediately obvious in the footage from the Swedish World Cup. The goal he scored against the host nation might be in the running for the best ever scored in a World Cup Final, at least in an individual sense, as he lopped the ball over opposing defenders before burying it in the corner. You’d think he was the only player on the field, or such is the framing: later the directors will buy into an exaggerated number of goals Pelé allegedly scored in his career as another example of the fawning that is not really necessary.
Pelé had little role to play in the 1962 Chile World Cup, ruled out quickly enough by injury and forced to watch from the sidelines as his country won a second consecutive crowd without him. Thoughts inevitably turn to another purported “GOAT” who watched his nation win a major triumph while he stood on the sidelines injured, and Pelé leans into an unstated comparison with Cristiano Ronaldo in the following sequences, that go into more detail on how Pelé was, in many ways, the first major footballing sensation in terms of popular celebrity. His presence, his ability to draw love from crowds, that famous, and near constant, smile, even if he hadn’t been a brilliant footballer he’s the kind of man you could imagine being a spokesperson or a film star regardless. He started a trend that people like Maradona, Cantona, Beckham, Zidane, Ronaldo and Neymar have followed: of the genius level athlete who seems to just draw the camera on him wherever he goes, the target for mass adulation that could easily create an unhealthy viewpoint.
The 1966 disaster, when Pelé and many of his fellow players were kicked off the field in England, is the on-pitch nadir, but also coincides with the rise of the military dictatorship at home. This is where Pelé could really go for the jugular if it was so inclined, as Pelé’s was a voice that could probably have done a great deal of damage to the junta, but it remained a voice that stayed quiet. In the worst evaluation, Pelé could be accused of actively aiding the propping up of that dictatorship, and of being all too happy to take part in the sort of propaganda events that would not have been out of place with the Italian side of the 1930’s. But here Pelé regrettably pulls its punches: we get only brief dismissals from the man himself and few others who want to cast any shadows. The closest is a journalist who says he went to Mexico in 1970 to root against the team of the junta, but then once the whistle blew he was right alongside all the other cheering fans in the canary yellow.
The 1970 World Cup is depicted in heavily romanticised terms. The open, attack-focused football, Pelé’s refusal to play into the easy narrative of a man past his prime, that Gordon Banks save and, of course, the demolition of Italy in the final – a game that, more than anything else, has implanted on Brazil the popular perception of joga bonito that remains incredibly dug-in even to this day – it’s all showcased in the kind of tones you might usually reserve for some sort of ballet. The man himself openly cries with the memory, and the audience is left in no doubt that the Brazilian victory there should not be viewed as a victory for the dictatorship. But little in the way of hard evidence is produced to back that assertion up, just anecdotal rejections of its influence, that doesn’t bare any real scrutiny: the 1970 win, with the team heavily backed financially and in other ways by the regime, was part and parcel of the “Brazilian miracle” that helped keep the junta in power until the mid-80s. Pelé admits he knew about the crimes of the regime and said nothing, but that’s about it: the directors are more focused on his relief at winning the ’70 final than anything else, and efforts at making him appear like a brave individual solely for what he did on the pitch.
Visually, I don’t think that Pelé is really all that interesting. Lots of well-worn footage of matches and goals is interspersed with confessional interviews of the various players involved, and if you are the kind of person who has been watching football since they were five it’s the sort of stuff you will have seen a million times or more. I never felt like what made Pelé such a great player practically, on the field, was made clear, not in seeing him power the ball into the back of the net a hundred times or in his stepovers and nutmegs. By reputation Pelé was so much more than that, but this film just doesn’t seem interested in giving us that kind of evaluation. At times also I felt that the directors were over-reliant on lazier aspects of historical documentary, with Pelé overflowing with rudimentary stock footage of Brazilian life during the 50’s, 60 and 70’s. There’s no real life in this documentary, just the sort of stuff you will have seen many, many times before. A few things stand-out, all related to the main subject: him tossing his zimmer frame contemptuously aside when he sits to be interviewed; crying with the memory of World Cup successes; a brief note from his sister, surrounded by pictures of the Pope
Pelé must go down as a missed opportunity, and a disappointment. Compare this to Asif Kapadia’s Diego Maradona, and it’s like comparing Pelé to Charlie Adams. It’s a veneration dressed up as an investigation, and that is not something that the subject needs. Everyone knows that Pelé was an incredible footballer, and perhaps relative to those that came before and after playing very different games, he was the best to ever play. But his role in the time of the dictatorship, his political career after retirement, his philandering (he has refused to acknowledge an illegitimate daughter DNA tests have proved was his: Pelé doesn’t broach this subject), these are all topics that should be a focus of this film, but either aren’t, or are only mentioned in the most shallow of terms, like a sop to the idea that Pelé was not the heroic icon so many have made it him out to be while he was playing and after. That kind of documentary is yet to be made, and probably would not be made with Pelé’s involvement, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t. We do not have to always kill our darlings, but we can challenge them to a greater extent than this. For the footballing side, a Youtube highlight playlist can give you the same experience. Pelé falls too short, too often otherwise. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).
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