Pelé movie review & film summary (2021)

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Frail but still magnetic, Pelé enters the frame for the first time with the help of a walker. Such a raw image instantly cuts off any illusions that the glory days haven’t passed for the once brisk athlete. At 80, he speaks in small and increasingly emotional beats. His presence throughout gives the documentary a frame of reference that grounds the archival footage of his grandeur. At times we witness Pelé watching his younger self; he’s either elated or reminded of the pain.

Still, the interviewers don’t push him to elaborate on some of the most critical career decisions he made at the height of his stardom, namely not denouncing the horrors of the military regime in his homeland. Like many nations across the Americas, Brazil’s democracy crumbled via a U.S.-backed coup in 1964. Violent repression and censorship became the norm, resulting in the deaths and torture of civilians. Through it all, nothing much changed for Pelé who even met with dictator Emílio Garrastazu Médici and never spoke out. This goes mostly unchallenged. 

Of the film’s many on-camera subjects, his former teammate Paulo Cézar Lima (or Caju) is the only one to discuss Pelé’s political neutrality in relation to race. Caju describes him as a submissive Black man who couldn’t say no or take a stance while knowing that his words could make a difference for millions.

In a country like Brazil where racism is still pervasive, as is the case across Latin America, it feels facetious to make a film about a Black Latino icon and not touch upon the racial context of their success, or tokenism within a racist country that nonetheless upheld him as a football messiah. If his position represented advancement for Brazil’s Black population there’s barely any mention of it.

Since football and the blinding euphoria of winning on a global stage provided escapism for the population, Pelé justifies his inaction, explaining his role as a miracle worker on the field had more value in the long run than whatever he could have said. Whether those are the honest facts or not, the documentary reaches its must unfortunate point when it compares Pelé’s choices to those of Muhammad Ali, who risked his professional prospects to speak out against the Vietnam War.

A subject goes as far as to claim that while Pelé was risking torture if he took a stand, Ali wasn’t putting himself on the line. The statement comes off as ignorantly dismissive of the struggle of Black people in the United States, especially at the time of the Civil Rights Movement.

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