When Brazilian cinema imagined a human Pelé

Versão em português aqui

With all the attention Brazilian media has given to Pelé’s 80th birthday, it is useful to look back to 1963, when Brazilian cinema dedicated a docudrama for him. O Rei Pelé (The King Pelé) was directed by the great Argentinian filmmaker Carlos Hugo Christensen (who stayed a quarter of century around here), with dialogues by Nelson Rodrigues (Brazil’s most celebrated playwright) e and Pele himself on screen in the adult scenes.

Christensen is an interesting choice to direct the film for several reasons, but above all for his distance to the main character and taste for an atmosphere charged with intimations of horror. O Rei Pele is far from the official celebration promised by its title and Pelé’s own involvement. After the earlier uncertain scenes of his childhood in Três Corações, the film reveals itself about how hard is to be Pelé, but not in a narcissist key, that difficult has little to do with celebrity, but a mix of the pressures of being “the king of football” and the fragility of an athlete’s career. When Pelé catches his first train to Santos he meets a fictional player at the end of his career who will chase him as a ghostly echo of what could be, an idea made literal after he gets hurt in the 1962 World Cup, the ghost returns to announce that Pelé is finished.

A lot of what is fascinating about the film has to do with it being made while Pelé’s career is still ongoing, he might have already started to be mystified as “the king of football”, but still exists in an earthly plane. The film shows how journalists questioned him, that the international success with the national team was not seen as a given, in a nutshell there’re moments we are reminded that one day Pelé wasn’t this celebrated unanimous master, that he received the same scrutiny of other great players. Christensen gives a lot of attention to Pelé’s anxiety and fears, he seems human in O Rei Pelé as he has rarely been seen in the past few decades. I don’t know how precise the film’s portrait about the reactions to his Chilean World Cup injury are, weather the writers use it to guarantee the dramatic arc of rise/fall/return (it climaxes with Santos first team world championship), but Christensen directs it for all its worth, sometimes the back half suggests a macabre A Hard Day’s Night, including a nightmare sequence Pelé’s career ending in which the Argentinean filmmaker puts all his taste for horror film on screen.

O Rei Pelé was released around the same time as Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s far better known Garrincha, Joy of the People. It is curious to think about the two movies together almost six decades later. I wouldn’t claim either is the filmmaker best work (The Priest and the Girl, Couro de Gato and Macunaima for Andrade, The Boy and the Wind, A Morte Transparente e Journey to Duilia’s Breasts for Christensen), Garrincha has a sociological side of an intellectual taking a look at popular culture that bores me a little, but finds some great moments with Garrincha. It is curious that the supposedly more alienated film gives so much attention to the fragilities and exploitation of athlete’s careers. Garrincha is a classic of direct cinema, but in its own way O Rei Pelé shows itself equally modern, in how its docudrama gives away to self-fiction. It remains the best portrait we have of Pelé.

The film is on You Tube with Spanish subs:

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