Straw Myth, by David Bax
Fábio Barreto’s Lula, The Son of Brazil is a well-intentioned attempt to celebrate the life of Brazil’s former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who left office just over a year ago after two terms. Unfortunately, those responsible for the film are either too close to the subject matter to examine his life with anything approaching intellectual depth or simply too enamored of their subject to care.
The plot follows Lula, as he is called by those close to him as well as those under his leadership, from his 1945 birth into a very large and very poor family with an absent father to the end of his career as the president of the Steel Workers’ Union in about 1980. He goes from being a smart, sensitive boy to being a smart, sensitive, caring and impossibly charismatic man whose devotion to his mother appears to outweigh all else but endears him mightily to those who follow him.
Barreto peoples his film with cartoonish characters who represent either the evil obstacles Lula must overcome or the beatific ideals for which he fights. His father, when he does involve himself in the boy’s life, is a violently anti-intellectual drunk. The Union president Lula eventually unseats is opportunistic, corrupt and, of course, quite fat. Meanwhile, his mother believes in hard work and good education and caring for your family and fellow man. The women in his life – both his first wife who passed away suddenly and the woman he meets later through his awkwardly handled friendship with a kindly taxi driver – are paragons of demurely smiling innocence who are irresistibly smitten with his charms.
This problem of flat characterization is not sequestered to merely the secondary characters and below. Herein lies the film’s largest flaw. Lula himself is colored with only one shade. He is righteous, at all times. No decision he makes at any point in the story is the wrong one. Barreto’s insistence that we like and sympathize with Lula becomes uncomfortable at times, given how little we are encouraged to think and consider the man. In particular, his courtship of his second wife consists essentially of his being a pushy, creepy stalker and her smiling chastely about it and then falling into his arms. The film also glosses over the fact that Lula fathered a child in the time between his two wives with another woman he never wed.
Essentially, what Barreto engages in here is mythmaking. Almost all of the events depicted in the film assume that you both understand what Lula will become and that you feel a certain way about him. For instance, the doctor’s words to Lula before informing him of his first wife’s death are, “You will have to be very strong to hear what I’m about to tell you.” The screenplay, in that moment, is nudging you, imploring you to make the reductive assumption that this is whence he gained the strength to lead a nation. It is, to anyone who dares count world leaders as fellow humans, insulting.
For anyone seeking a history lesson of Brazil from 1945-1980, Lula, The Son of Brazil contains some factoids and a broad outline of the transition from dictatorship to true constitutional republic. If that’s what you’re after, have at it. Otherwise, this film is not worth your time.