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Pele film on soccer legend’s formative years scores big

Brazilian soccer star Pele foots the ball during

Brazilian soccer star Pele foots the ball during an exhibtion game in Los Angeles in April 1976. Credit: AP

Scripted sports films about real people and events are notorious for driving fans bonkers by messing with the facts. But in the case of “Pele: Birth of a Legend,” the directors are best known for their documentary work.

That should help. Right?

“We wanted to make sure that even though it was a subjective journey we were really rooting it in accuracy,” said Jeff Zimbalist, who wrote and directed with his brother, Michael.

Said Michael: “When it came to the play action, we definitely were sticklers.”

That included studying black-and-white film of the 1958 World Cup, in which Brazil defeated host Sweden in the final with the help of Pele — the culmination of a movie that focuses on his soccer rise from ages 9 to 17.

The Zimbalists brought deep knowledge of and respect for the game to the project. Among their documentaries is “The Two Escobars,” a soccer-themed film that is among the most acclaimed in the history of ESPN’s “30 for 30” franchise.

But beyond getting the soccer right, the Zimbalists wanted to honor the early life story of Pele, who collaborated on the film and has a cameo in it, as well as to celebrate Brazil and the importance of that era in its development.

At a news conference last month tied to the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Pele called it “a gift from God” and said watching it as it depicted him and his family made him emotional.

“I am a very weak guy,” he said. “I cry, always, when I saw part of the film. But it’s good. You cry from happiness . . . It involved my family, my parents, my father, so I just wanted it to be honest.”

Pele recalled his father’s devastation at Brazil losing the 1950 final to Uruguay and promising that someday he would win a World Cup for him.

(When Pele saw a reporter from Uruguay at his news conference, he said, 66 years after the fact, “Congratulations!”)

That 1950 defeat, on Brazil’s home soil, is where the movie begins. It takes advantage of the flexibility of a scripted film to stylize some soccer action — or at least to slow it down — highlighting the free-form “ginga” style Pele made famous.

Jeff Zimbalist said ginga’s nuances are “something you don’t have the technical capacity to show in a documentary . . . That stuff is a ton of fun to play with and was something we really wanted to take advantage of.”

He added, “There was a lot of concern about how we were going to create persuasive and exciting play action in a way that previous efforts in scripted feature films had fallen short.”

The movie depicts Brazil’s struggles as a nation in that era with how it was perceived internationally.

“We have a total love affair with Brazil, we’ve done a bunch of stuff there,” Jeff said. “It’s a country of extremes . . . That sort of rich history of culture and energy has always been inspiring to us.”

Said Michael: “Focusing on this period, the lesser-known period, his formative years, it was exciting because it was less known, because his rise not only had this great football and he breaks all these records, but it kind of paralleled the maturing of the country in the 1950s.”

Leonardo Lima Carvalho plays the younger Pele and Kevin de Paula the teenager and eventual World Cup star. The filmmakers discovered the latter playing in a semipro game near a Rio de Janeiro beach.

The idea for the project was hatched during the 2012 Olympics in London. While it was not completed in time for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, its release in theaters last Friday and on video on demand this Friday coincides with the approach of the Rio Olympics in August.

Said Michael: “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Interest in soccer in the U.S. has really been picking up, and with the Olympics coming up in Brazil it felt like a great time to be able to tell this story.”

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