It must be an exceedingly hard undertaking to produce a biopic about a nation’s most beloved leader who’s still living and not fall into abject, trite hagiography. Luckily, filmmakers in the United States have never had to grapple with this particular hardship (too soon? #dontdetainmebro). The necessary and unavoidable difficulty in any attempt to capture the human in a figure so recently/currently mythologized makes Fábio Barreto’s Lula, Son of Brazil a bit easier to swallow. But only a little bit. Touching on the most readily apparent elements of classically heroic and unwaveringly positive Great Man narratives, Barreto’s latest film (an adaptation of Denise Paraná’s book of the same name) concerns the early life of recently retired Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Lula handles the problems of conflict and compelling character development by completely ignoring them, choosing instead to depict the actions of a character unblemished and noble enough to cause even the creative team behind The Motorcycle Diaries to cry foul.
It’s telling that the major media outlets’ pull quotes, which New Yorker Films decided to feature for this release, are about the man himself, and not the film about the man. Lula follows the life of the former Brazilian leader from his birth into poverty in 1945 to his ascendency as a leading figure in the Brazilian Labor movement in 1980, the stated aim of the film being to delve into the formative experiences of a man-of-the-people who so fundamentally changed the way politics is done in Brazil. In the film, young Lula is raised in a ramshackle dwelling by his put-upon mother, Dona Lindu (Glória Pires), who does her best to keep him from his stereotypically and consistently drunk father, whose only joys seem to reside in terrorizing his children and cheating on his wife (all while forbidding his children an education).
Once his father is out of the picture, the sequences following Lula’s development into young adulthood trace a well-worn and altogether boring arc involving his tireless efforts as a metal-worker, never daunted by less than ideal conditions of his occupation, never giving up on on his dreams, and coming to terms with a corrupt world that somehow never manages to tarnish his peerless character (as a perfect hero, he is after all “in this world” while not being “of this world”). I was half-disappointed when he failed to give a blind man sight or heal a leper.
Lula bogs itself down in repeatedly stressing the fact that its hero was neither a communist nor a leftist, but merely a young machinist concerned with the rights of his fellow workers — he says as much several times throughout the film. In fact, the most compelling instance in the film takes place when Lula, after suffering a life-changing tragedy, sits alone, broken, in a ramshackle lawn chair in a dirt courtyard. It’s the only scene in which despair is allowed to creep across his otherwise beamingly optimistic face.
Regardless of whether you admire Da Silva as a world figure (and you probably should), you should also admit that a filmed tribute as fluffy and glossed over as Lula does little to adequately honor the legacy of a man who spent the majority of his adult life railing against empty propaganda on the part of those in power.