Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Fábio Barreto's LULA, SON OF BRAZIL opens, but the movie belongs to mom

Hagiography's a tricky thing and pretty much unavoidable when a movie is dealing with a famous political figure. When that figure happens to be Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known affectionately for decades as simply "Lula" and evidently the single most popular politician in that country's history), a warts-and-all bio-pic is probably not in the cards. So, from the outset, when a drop-dead gorgeous kid plays the very young Lula and even more beautiful one does the honors as an adolescent, straight through to the end-credits, during which we see photos of Lula posing with practically every great (and not so) world leader, it is clear that the movie-makers have primed us to go "wow," "Wow!" and "WOW!" once more.

Interestingly enough, as terrific a guy as the movie LULA, SON OF BRAZIL makes its Lula look, the film, directed by Fábio Barreto (shown at left), and written by Daniel Tendler, Fernando Bonassi and Denise Paraná, seems even more interested in serving up mommy hagiography. And when the mommy is as fascinating a character as Lula's mother evidently was, and when she is played by as riveting an actress as the award-winning Glória Pires (below, right), we can only be grateful for the result. If the movie were as consistently powerful and commanding as are its initial scenes, it would be one for the books. As it is, Lula SOB (whoops: I was abbreviating for the sake of space, but I think perhaps not, in this case...) proves a reasonably creditable and certainly enjoyable biopic about a fellow of whom -- until I read Nicholas Lemann's recent article (about Dilma Roussef, the woman who took Lula's place as Brazilian President) in The New Yorker -- I had known very little.

Lula's (and the film's) beginning takes place in a dirt-poor section of Brazilian countryside and shows us the hard-scrapple life of the family, prior to Lula's birth -- after dad has deserted mom and their many children to go live with his younger paramour (and her child, presumably by him) in the big city. These early scenes are simple but powerful, brought to life by Baretto's talents and that of his actors, particularly Ms Pires.

This fellow's first love and early marriage is given more than its share of time and energy, with a very appealing actress -- Cléo Pires (above) -- in the role of his unlucky wife.

It's when Lula goes to work as a machinist, joins the union and eventually becomes the workers' leader that the film grows most interesting. Lula's a smart boy/man from the outset, and his ability to know when to compromise and back down would seem to be key to his political success. The film takes place during the same period as that of the recent Brazilian documentary DZI Croquettes, and it cannot have been easy working with, around, and under the thumb of the military dictatorship of that time. But Lula managed it, seemingly as much by constantly proclaiming that he and his workers were no Communists as by his political skills (actually, this "We're not Communists!" stance was one of his political skills).

The movie grows more like a soap opera as it moves along -- with the good people all very good and the villains... Well, funny thing, but there aren't any -- except of course that military dictatorship, which is relatively faceless here (and Lula's not-so-nice dad). Practically everybody we meet is good and true and trying his or her hardest to make things work. Thanks to the good work of the filmmaker and his cast, you buy it, at least for the time that you are watching. But I suspect Lula's life was a hell of a lot more complicated and problematic that what we see here.

Lula, the Son of Brazil, from New Yorker Films, with a running time of 128 minutes, opens this Friday, January 13, in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Quad Cinema. In the Los Angeles area, look for Lula to open on January 27 at Laemmle's Music Hall 3 and Playhouse 7. (I would assume the film will soon be playing elsewhere around the country, but I could not find any information about this on the company web site.)

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