Given the popularity of Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, aka “Lula,” it was only a matter of time before a large-scale biopic of the leader’s prole-to-power story was made. The fact that “Lula: Son of Brazil” was produced by the venerable LC Barreto unit, the country’s deepest-pocketed filmmaking family, ensures a lavishly staged film (the $7 million pic is Brazil’s priciest to date), even as its conventionally chronological narrative offers a much sanitized retelling. Solid local B.O. results in theaters and homevid has extended Lula’s fame.
Director Fabio Barreto’s film serves a big-budget tribute to a working-class hero, as much a hero to Brazil’s left as Ronald Reagan remains to America’s right. This adaptation of journalist Denise Parana’s biography sticks to a time frame, from Lula’s birth in 1945 to the death of his mother in 1980, which ends before he launched his political career later that decade. Pic’s actual heroine is Lula’s mother, Lindu (Gloria Pires), first seen being abandoned by alcoholic husband Aristides (Milhem Cortaz) and left to raise seven kids in the desperately poor region of Pernambuco. Shortly after Lula’s birth, a forged letter urges Lindu to join Aristides in Sao Paulo. (In fact, the man has taken up with a new woman, and wants to never see Lindu again.) The family’s 13-day trek to the metropolitan area yields the film’s best sequence.
As Lula grows up (smart casting allows for a smooth transition from Felipe Falanga playing the lad at age 7 to Guilherme Tortolio in his mid-teens), we’re told of his exceptional intelligence amid a dreadful environment dominated by a raging and abusive Aristides and slum conditions in which heavy rains flood the family out of their shack.
In the first sign of a shift from the more realist vein to a movie-movie attitude, the film depicts a rapid and easy progression as Lindu and family leave Aristides behind for the big city.
The adult Lula (now played by the effective Rui Ricardo Diaz) trains as a machinist and lands work as lathe operator at an auto factory. Urged by communist-leaning brother Ziza (Sostenes Vidal) to join the Steel Workers Union that runs the shop, Lula is notably apolitical. He’s far more interested in beautiful Lurdes (Cleo Pires), whom he’s known since they were kids, and courts her all the way to the altar.
The screenplay by Daniel Tendler, Fernando Bonassi and Lula biographer Parana succumbs to many of the most unfortunate narrative tendencies of biopics, including a proclivity for piling on incident after incident as a substitute for real character insight. Tragedy involving Lurdes is depicted with such quick brushstrokes that the full emotional impact is never felt (while another out-of-wedlock relationship was wisely bypassed to prevent an already long film from feeling longer), and Lula’s political transformation feels less personal than mechanical.
The entertainment gains a sense of authenticity through generous use of black-and-white archival footage, particularly of the well-documented 1964 military coup and subsequent police-state atmosphere. However, except for a sequence showing a labor rally harshly put down by government troops, “Lula” fails to powerfully dramatize the ruthlessness workers and anti-government forces would face over the next two decades, perhaps ironically buttressing claims by political foes who dismiss the pic as mere pro-Lula propaganda.
Diaz, a relative unknown, fills in some of the emotional gaps with a performance of genuine range, particularly as Lula matures and realizes the stakes for his fellow workers as a union organizer. His faceoffs with Marcos Cesana’s fat and happy union head Claudio comprise the film’s primary dramatic showpieces, while scenes with Pires’ Lindu grow more morose.
Large-scale sequences with countless extras, dozens of locations and a multi-decade storyline will satisfy many looking for a movie suited to Lula’s larger-than-life persona. Fine technical credits include Gustavo Hadba’s intentionally raw-looking cinematography and the gentle guitar-and-strings score by Antonio Pinto and Jaques Morelenbaum.