In the past few years a slew of biopics about recent European rightwing leaders have been released, including The Conquest (about Nicolas Sarkozy’s rise to France’s presidency), The Iron Lady (with Meryl Streep as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher), The Queen (about Queen Elizabeth and Britain’s sellout and war monger, Prime Minister Tony Blair), Il Divo (about Italy’s Christian Democrat senator for life and Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti), as well as Il Caimano, which lampoons Italy’s buffoonish Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Now there’s a feature to cheer for about one of the good guys, as Fabio Barreto’s Lula, Son of Brazil joins Clint Eastwood’s ode to Nelson Mandela, Invictus, as a biopic about a left-leaning leader.
This stylish, stirring, poignant picture follows Luis Inacio Lula da Silva from his birth and humble origins in Brazilian hinterlands to his migration to the urban squalor of São Paolo’s favelas. Lula is real salt of the Earth, a man of the people, who during his childhood was a shoeshine boy and fruit peddler. His father is a ne’er-do-well who deserts the family, although his mother, Dona Lindu (Gloria Pires) is a loving, nurturing, encouraging pillar of strength. Several actors portray Lula from childhood to adulthood, and newcomer Rui Ricardo Diaz incarnates the grownup metal worker as he rises in the ranks of the trade union movement that challenges the factory bosses and Brazil’s military dictatorship. Like Mandela, Lula becomes a political prisoner (albeit for a far shorter time than his South African counterpart) who eventually became head of state.
Along the way, Lula endures personal tragedy and loss, as well as public struggles against the military regime. Sequences of factory strikes, occupations, rallies, demonstrations and government crackdowns are shot with cinematic verve and gusto by Gustavo Hadba, and reminded me of 1969’s Z, the Costa-Gavras classic about the Greek colonels’ coup that won the Best Foreign Film Oscar. However, Barreto and his cinematographer Hadba also have keen eyes for filmically rendered, often exquisite close-ups that bring viewers into the drama.
It is this balance of the political and the personal, in terms of film form and content, that makes Lula so gripping. The private family and romantic elements are organically linked to the mass drama – just as they are in real life, too. Like the moving father-son relationship in A Better Life, the mother-son relationship between Lula and Lindu is extremely touching, and of course emphasizes how parenting is the most important job in the world. This is one of the best silver screen depictions of a mother-son relationship set against a social backdrop since V.I. Pudovkin’s 1926 Soviet revolutionary silent masterpiece Mother, based on Maxim Gorky’s novel.
The acting has a Neo-Realist flavor to it in the sense that a working class milieu is truthfully depicted, although most of the lead parts are played by professional actors. Rui Ricardo Diaz, an unknown, had theatre training; this turn in the title role of an epic is his first film role. In addition to Diaz and Gloria Pires, Cleo Pires as Lula’s first wife Lurdes and Sostenes Vidal as Ziza, the brother who is to the left of Lula, also excel. Cleo is the real life daughter of Gloria Pires, a telenovela star who also acted in 1995’s O Quatrilho, an Oscar nominated drama directed by Barreto.
Politically, Lula, Son of Brazil depicts its proletarian protagonist as an honest trade union militant who repeatedly asserts that he is not “a communist.” Lula was more or less a social democrat, and the successful Workers Party candidate for president in post-dictatorship Brazil ruled the country in that way. While he was part of the Bolivarian trend of left-leaning South American leaders portrayed in 2010’s great Oliver Stone documentary South of the Border, he is clearly not as radical as his counterparts in Cuba, Bolivia and Venezuela. However, after serving two terms in office he reportedly reduced poverty, left Brazil better off than he’d found it before becoming president, remained immensely popular, and handed the presidency off to a democratically elected woman and former guerrilla, Workers Party candidate Dilma Rousseff.
The movie’s final credits become propagandistic, with a hagiography of Lula consisting of titles telling boasting about his achievements and photos of him meeting with various world leaders. The transition from fiction to factual is jarring, and also strange, because the rest of the biopic has a far greater ring of truth. But this is a mere quibble; otherwise, Lula is a marvelous motion picture experience about a man and a movement that shook South America’s largest nation to its core. If you happen to love great movies, don’t miss Lula, Son of Brazil.