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‘Lula’: A Native Son Gets The VIP Treatment

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
January 12, 2012

Last October, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil announced that he had throat cancer and resigned from office, ending a wildly popular career that brought his country out of dictatorship and into prosperous democracy. Lula, as he’s called by adoring millions at home, rose from poverty to become a fiery union leader and then a mature politician with bags of charisma, formidable diplomatic skills and a lot of luck with rising global markets.

Lula’s presidency was also marred by charges of corruption — which makes him a person of interest, and one who deserves better than the clunky love letter Fabio Barreto has posted in his new biopic. And Brazil, which has a fine tradition of neorealist filmmaking that honors its working classes without reducing them to pap, deserves a better entry at this year’s Academy Awards.

Long on hero worship and woefully short on insight, Lula: Son of Brazil oozes good intentions, but it wouldn’t look out of place in a retrospective of early Soviet workerist cinema. Laden with craggy heroic prototypes, Lula hauls us through its subject’s early years in a parade of dogged cause-and-effect vignettes. First comes the hardscrabble boyhood in which he’s shielded from an angry lush of a father (Milhem Cortaz) by a saintly mother with a strong Anna Magnani face (Gloria Pires), plus an army of perfectly supportive siblings. Next he’s a budding entrepreneur cobbling together a family living by selling fruit on the street, then graduating to a job as a lathe operator. Lula’s initial queasiness about becoming a union activist is put down to his witnessing the death of a fellow worker and a manager; a political change of heart is occasioned by the death of his young wife, along with their unborn child. Then, out of the clear blue sky, he emerges as a natural orator, though of course a humbly reluctant one.

The poor man isn’t even allowed the roaring ambition that is a fairly essential part of a politician’s toolkit. Newcomer Rui Ricardo Diaz, who plays Lula as an adult, has a vaguely Christlike look that’ll make you wonder whether Mel Gibson has thought to option the book for a remake starring himself. Whether Diaz just isn’t ready for a lead role or is simply the victim of incompetent direction is unclear, but he comes off more like an eager puppy than a fledgling leader of men. And every time he opens his mouth he must grapple with strings of cliche adapted by Denise Parana (with Daniel Tendler) from her own book — and fight a score that’s pure syrup.

To the best of my knowledge, Lula doesn’t make stuff up. Aside from some intercut news footage to beef up the action, though, little context is supplied about the brutally autocratic regime that Lula and his fellow fighters sought to dismantle.

Beyond his mother’s sage counsel, we don’t learn what led Lula to avoid the rote populism and frenzied anti-capitalism of so many other South American heads of state. Instead, the film folds a complex, intelligent and highly ambitious man into a paragon who would never have gotten as far as he did without mom dispensing courage and caution as needed right up until her deathbed.

I don’t doubt that Dona Lindu exerted a strong positive influence on her son, but in Lula she becomes a parody of Catholic mother-worship, a human platitude whose endless fortitude is underlined in every other scene. Informed of his father’s death, Lula takes a beat for decency’s sake and then, improbably, says, “OK, no problem. My kindness is inherited from my mother. The badness is all his.”

But aside from a drunken night out, all badness is banished from this cleaned-up biography. So it’s a pity that Lula ends, judiciously, when Brazil’s future president is just 35 years old — which is roughly when many of us, unless we’re Mozart or Justin Bieber, only begin to show what we’re made of. All of it. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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