Directors: David Tryhorn, Ben Nicholas
Streaming on: Netflix
Pelé is a strange documentary. In one sense, it’s not a hagiography in spite of the man himself being interviewed about his career. He gets emotional when he speaks about the beautiful game – the heartbreaking Uruguayan heist in 1950, those 3 famous World Cup victories between 1958 and 1970, his arrival on the global stage as a 17-year-old prodigy in Sweden, his prolific form for childhood club Santos, his injuries, his goals, his patriotism and his glorious farewell. “Through Pelé, Brazil learnt how to love themselves,” a talking head remarks, immediately capturing the inextricable affair between a nation and its favourite God. But the makers also get Pelé to speak of his infidelity, his political indifference and his controversial yes-man relationship with the country’s new authoritarian regime. Understandably so, Pelé is lukewarm when he touches upon these issues. But the strange part is that the storytelling – the narrative style of the documentary – is almost apologetic about his flaws. It strives to paint Pelé as just a simple boy who healed his country by being a genius on the field. He was the people’s government.
Every time a colleague or journalist comments on his baffling neutrality – one even cites the towering example of the “other” black superstar Muhammad Ali – it is followed by a reminder that speaking up in a dictatorship is different from defying in a democracy. It is also followed by a reminder that much of Brazil viewed his craft as his voice, his football as his humanity. Pelé was an escape more than their conscience – and at times, their conscience by being an escape. As a result, the documentary tries to make a case that sporting or artistic greatness is, by definition, more political than politics – a theory that pro-establishment Indian superstars might swear by.
So in another sense, Pelé is a sympathetic celebration rather than a critical examination; it is possibly a hagiography disguised as an objective study of legacy. At one point, a journalist who admits he wanted Brazil to tank in the 1970 World Cup – because victory would mean a victory for dictatorship (the right-wing government intervenes and fires the coach who annoys Pelé) – also admits that his sense of morality goes for a toss when he sees Pelé kick a football. It’s a reflection of what so many of us, too, face when we see Kohli or Tendulkar flick a ball or Amitabh Bachchan own a scene with his baritone: for better or worse, their art is so transcendent that it hijacks our individualism. That the documentary then chooses to make it all about Pelé’s final World Cup in Mexico – his redemption song after a disastrous 1966 – demonstrates the film’s inherent trust in the dramatic rather than the intimate. This is his story, his rags-to-riches arc, his football fairytale, his Brazil. Consequently, as compared to the significant South American legacy documentaries of our times like Senna and Maradona, Pelé is deliberately virginal. It pretends to go deeper than it does, inadvertently revealing its subject to be more ignorant than honest. The early tournament montages resemble that godawful fictional version, Pelé: Birth of a Nation, while the Wikipedia-level retelling of the timeline just about keeps us engaged.
As magical as his conquests on the pitch were, I couldn’t get past the fact that the film attempts to warm us up to a champion whose exploits enabled a culture of fascism to rule Brazil for another 15 years. All the signs point towards him winning 1970 for his militant leader. 25 years later, a white Rugby captain won his black president the World Cup to heal a post-Apartheid nation of its past. Yet, it’s Pelé we will continue to remember. Perhaps because football and films form the most beguiling of marriages. In one, the legs do what the hands are built to do, and in the other, the camera does what the eyes are conditioned to do. Both crafts demand an ability to suppress instinct while still producing a consequence that evokes the fluidity of instinct. For Pelé of course, it goes a step further. His heart does what the mind is designed to do – some call it politics, others call it winning.