By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 10, 2012)
Let’s dispense with this right off the bat: Lula, the Son of Brazil is an unabashed hagiography. Then again, it’s not like co-directors Fabio Barreto and Marcelo Santiago are trying to pretend like their glowing biopic is intended to be interpreted as anything but (especially when you have a tagline like “The story of Brazil’s most beloved president!”). It’s also touted as the highest budgeted Brazilian film production to date, at 5 million dollars (isn’t that like, the catering bill for your typical bloated Hollywood epic these days?). Still, it is hard to find fault with a film about a person whom it is hard to find fault with (yes, I know…no one is beyond reproach).
Indeed, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva’s life journey from dirt-poor shoeshine boy to benevolent world leader (he served as president from 2003-2010) seems tailor-made for the screen, with the major players in his life plucked straight out of Central Casting (sometimes, all you have to do is tell the truth, and no one will believe you). I suspect that Fernando Bonassi, Denise Parana and Daniel Tendler’s screenplay (based on Parana’s book) practically wrote itself. You have the Strong Saintly Mother (Gloria Pires), the Drunken Abusive Father (Milhem Cortaz), and the Childhood Sweetheart (Clio Pires, pulling double duty as The Young Wife Who Dies Tragically).
The film begins in Lula’s birth year, 1945. Lula, his mother Lindu and six siblings are left to fend for themselves after Aristides, his father, leaves (abandons?) the hard-scrabbling farm family to find work in the city. The family reunites when Lula (Felipe Falanga) is seven, after Aristides instructs Lindu to sell the house and land and move to the city (the meager proceeds are just enough to pay for their transportation). The boys are immediately put to work; an enterprising Lula shines shoes and sells flowers on the street.
Lindu secretly enrolls him in school; when Aristides (an illiterate who values work over education) finds out, he is apoplectic. Lindu stands her ground, keeping Lula in school. His teacher, sensing a high aptitude in the youngster empathetic to his poverty, makes an offer to adopt him. The proud Lindu refuses, opting to give all her children a chance at a better life by breaking free from the oppressive Aristides’ toxic orbit for good (you’ll feel like cheering). She gathers up the kids and moves to Sao Paulo, where they fare much better.
We watch Lula (played as an adult by Rui Ricardo Diaz) come of age; he graduates from a technical school, gets a factory job, loses a finger in a lathe mishap, and marries his childhood sweetheart. His first marriage ends tragically, after which he begins (at the encouragement of his brother and to the chagrin of his mother) to gravitate toward leftist politics. And we all know what that inevitably leads to…Lula becomes a (wait for it)…labor activist!
By the time he becomes a union official in the late 70s, he finds himself at loggerheads with the military-controlled government of the time. After officials identify him as one of the prime movers behind a series of major work strikes, he is arrested and jailed. After prison, the increasingly politicized Lula helps create Brazil’s progressive Worker’s Party in the early 80s, and then…and then…the film ends.
Ay, there’s the rub, and the main reason why political junkies may find this slick, well-acted production inspiring on one hand, yet curiously unsatisfying on the other. The intriguing end crawl, highlighting milestones in Lula’s subsequent climb to the top suggests that the filmmakers may have picked the wrong half of his career to cover. I found myself wondering “what happened next?!”, and asking questions like: What did he do to earn declaration as Brazil’s most beloved president, with an approval rating of 80.5% during the final months of his tenure? What inspired President Obama to greet him at the G20 summit with “That’s my man right there…love this guy…the most popular politician on Earth”?
Don’t get me wrong, because I do loves me a stirring, old-fashioned leftist polemic as much as the next progressive pinko; I was righteously “stirred”, and had a lump in my throat many times…but something was lacking. By the time the credits rolled, I didn’t feel I had insight as to what made Lula tick. What did make Lula run? Then again…the answer may lie in the three simple words that Lindu imparts to her beloved son, from her deathbed: “Never give up.”