Horatio Alger Redux
Biopics abound about statesmen/-women, opposition leaders, terrorists, FBI directors and football players, con men and celebrities. Suspect as whitewash via selective omission, fictionalized lives trail disclaimers, necessary in that figures are still alive, or dead, under house arrest, inaccessible or unwilling. Now comes Oscar submission Lula, Son of Brazil/Lula, o filho do Brasil, so fantastic “a story that it could work as fiction -- a drama occurring in scenarios,” directed by Fábio Barreto, coproduced by his cinema-influential family and adapted from her own book by coscriptwriter Denise Paraná.
The two-hours-plus aims, not at political trajectory but, rather, poetic license shot in the actual locations for a universal theme of perseverance by a common man who rises to the heights. Though the onscreen story finishes up around 1980, end-titles fill in future triumphs and international acclaim for Luis Inácio Lula da Silva alongside stills of the real, now silver-bearded bon vivant smiling with world leaders. “Everyone already knows the rest of the story,” so the decades included center on the formation in childhood, family-man tragedy, and the cauldron of civil and labor unrest that rocked the southern giant.
Playing the single-name -- à la soccer idols -- man from age eighteen to thirty-five, theater actor film rookie Rui Ricardo Diaz is clean-shaved, then sports first a moustache, then a full beard and lastly a little paunch fronting a fuller frame. Initially diffident, grateful for opportunities and not attracted to either labor or political activism, before our eyes he acquires assurance, savvy and, in the original non-pejorative sense, demagogic mastery.
Where his boldness originates -- e.g., as a grieving widower high-handedly dismissing a rival for widow Marisa Leticia Lais (Juliana Baroni), his second wife -- is mysterious, a function of genetics, experience and historical circumstance. And of nurture, for behind this particular successful man is not just any woman, but his strong mother Dona Lindu (Glória Pires). She is the most striking character here, and her death is the second sorrow of Lula’s life as well as more or less the end-point of the film life.
The first half is better, on that childhood (Felipe Falanga and Guilherme Tortolio as the hero at, respectively, seven and fifteen). In a dirt-poor northeast shack Lindu bears eight children and the abuse of alcoholic husband Aristides (Milhem Cortaz), who abandons them to drag son Jaime (Maicon Gouveia) to São Paulo. In the one humorous bit, the illiterate man’s letter, painfully written by Jaime, is mistranslated and leads the wife to sell their pitiful all and show up on his decrepit doorstep with the kids.
She soon has had enough and leaves to raise the children on her own in Santos, even refusing a well-intentioned foolish teacher’s (Lucelia Santos) offer to adopt scholastically promising Lula. The youngsters sell fruit, shine shoes, whatever brings in a few reales, while mother also insists on the education, self-confidence and determination that earn Lula admission to a vocational institute for machinist studies.
Steelworkers union membership is a must, but he is unconvinced by the working men’s activities favored by brother Ziza (Sostenes Vidal). Romancing and marrying longtime friend Lambari’s (Clayton Mariano, with Luccas Papp as the fifteen-year-old) sister Lurdes (Glória’s daughter Cléo Pires, with Vanessa Bizarro as her at thirteen) occupies his heart and mind. Her death and the stillborn son’s send him into a funk for which union involvement and courting Marisa prove cathartic.
Here, however, only half-way through, the film loses momentum. Non-Brazilians unfamiliar with the tumultuous times and place get a glimmer through snippets of television reporting and frames of government repression and internal union haggling. Such sketchy background is not essential, anyway, but as Dona Lindu fades into a cardboard proud mother, the last hour flatlines into meetings, rallies and brutal official reactions which do nothing convincing in the way of the hero’s touted charisma and vindication. Emotion gives way to stagey conventional pseudo-populism, with the human disappeared. Even politics would have been preferable.
(Released by New Yorker Films; not rated by MPAA.)