The biopic Lula, The Son of Brazil, is hard to review because it’s not just a movie. This film is propaganda, education, and entertainment all rolled up into 128 minutes of Technicolor bombast. I don’t know nearly enough about Brazilian politics to give this film the critical eye it deserves. As such I will now do my best to convince you to either watch it with contextual provisions, or consider steering clear of it all together.
This is the story of the early life of former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. For those of you not in the know, (and I must confess that I was ignorant), Lula da Silva is a popular Brazilian politician who served as president from January of 2003 to December of 2010. As the former head of a BRIC economy, and one of Time Magazine’s 2010 100 most influential people in the world there’s no reason why we shouldn’t all know at least a bit about him. Perhaps in some small way that’s enough of a reason for folks to see Lula. Perhaps.
While this movie does offer insight into the man’s political development, for the most part this film focuses in on his life before his political ascent. This film begins with his birth, and profiles his life until his incarceration for trade union involvement in the early 80’s. If it were a superhero movie, this would be the origin story, and he doesn’t even put on a cape really until the last third of the film.
Unlike Bats or Spidey, this true story is a both sad and compelling. The man known as “Lula” (Rui Ricardo Diaz) came out of nowhere. There was a very good chance that he would have gone nowhere. His life was a struggle, and this is a film that is all about driving home the point that Lula is a hero. There is never a question that Lula is good, and that he will suffer and triumph. While it may be a compelling story, does it make for a good movie?
If I could compare Lula to an American movie, it would probably be The Pursuit of Happyness. In the same way that that film was a constant and unrelenting series of hurdles, this film never tries to turn a story of struggle into a fairytale. The happy ending exists beyond the boarders of the film, but this isn’t a movie about the ending, it’s about the journey. Unlike Pursuit, this story is also trying to lift the protagonist up to the level of legend, and as such at times it becomes heavy handed.
As a rule I’m suspicious of any biopic that begins, as this film does, with the main character’s birth. Birth scenes have a tendency to create artificial drama – there’s screaming, pain, and crying, but little in the way of actual storytelling. We are all born, and the credit goes to our moms, not us. You could argue that Lula’s relationship with his mother is a key element of this film, yet still this presentation doesn’t bring a lot to the table. Like an over-emphatic speaker who uses their whole body to talk, the film’s opening feels like an intrusive poke in the chest. This is a feeling that never goes away.
Lula is constantly being thrown in horrible situations. He shined shoes, and sold oranges to help his family. His father was a scenery-chewing alcoholic. He worked in a factory where he lost part of a finger. He fell in love with a woman who he married, and who then died in childbirth. He witnessed political unrest, and political mistreatment. He lead protests. He was arrested. He continued.
As far as I know, all of this is true, but the story has little in the way of dimension. If this story were fiction, I would be left with a very big, “Why?” There are scenes that highlight Lula’s mother, and it’s obvious she was influential, but there comes a point where her character drops away from the story. Early on we’re given bright scenes that seem to highlight his destiny, but they’re obvious signposts, not subtle hints at his future strengths. In the end I feeling like I should be impressed with Lula, but I have no better idea of who he is.
Lula, The Son of Brazil is a movie that outlines this Brazilian hero in bold relief. He is not given nuance or character; instead it’s an extended version of the George Washington cherry tree tale. As a result, one is left to wonder how much of this is truth, and how much of it is blind hero worship. Responsible world citizens should probably know the story of Lula, but when it comes down to it, it doesn’t feel like Lula ever truly gives us insight into Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.