‘Lula’ Review: An Incomplete Portrait of Brazil’s Fiery Left-Wing President

Directed by Oliver Stone (and co-directed by Rob Wilson), the 90-minute political portrait “Lula” covers a vast amount of historical and contemporary ground. However, despite its handful of rousing moments, the documentary — about Brazil’s current pro-worker president, Lula da Silva — comes from a limited perspective that prevents a fuller examination of the man, his myth and the people who believe in him.

The film is constantly torn between holding U.S. policy to account for decades of interference on South American governments and coming at Lula’s story primarily from a U.S. perspective. Stone, whose sit-down interview with Lula forms the movie’s narrative launchpad, is a mildly inquisitive and happily reverential on-screen interviewer — he clearly admires Lula, perhaps to a fault — but his blinkered understanding of his own subject matter shackles the movie to surface-level readings of Brazilian politics and of the various left-wing Latin American labor movements that come up but go largely unexplored.

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Old photographs and anecdotes of Lula’s early days as a union leader (starting in the 1970s) make for an adequate window into his rags-to-revolutionary story, but the quickness with which Stone jumps from one topic to the next prevents the film from being impactful. The various facts of Lula’s upbringing, including some major personal tragedies, are only allowed to deal glancing blows. There’s no knife that twists, and no element of the president’s psychology is mined enough to be a dramatic driving force en route to some vital catharsis. This makes “Lula” more of an educational piece in the vein of a TV news special, rather than a probing personal study of a modern left-wing leader who has long defied western interests and his country’s own far right.

The conspiracies against Lula (which eventually led to an unjust imprisonment) make for an intriguing turning point, but it’s hard to imagine any Brazilian viewer, or anyone already familiar with these events as reported by international media, gaining any novel insight, which means even those unfamiliar with Lula’s story might be able to learn just as much from Wikipedia. While the re-creation of certain discoveries and election results make for exciting scenes, they come courtesy of existing news footage and interviews with the journalists who already told these stories. Editors Mark Franks, Kurt Mattila and Alexis Chavez certainly deserve credit for their propulsive assembly, but in the process, Stone and Wilson are rendered mere curious middlemen, whose direction (and more importantly, whose wholesale conceptualization) of Lula’s story seldom illuminates the more interesting contours of his life.

There are, however, moments in which the documentary functions as a cautionary tale about the abuse of power, as well as an ode to the journalists and whistleblowers who oppose and expose it. But at the end of the day, few of these tidbits in the film are directly tethered to Lula as an interview subject or feel like the outcome of the unprecedented access Stone was granted to the enigmatic figure and his inner circle. That a film called “Lula” creates its most engrossing moments without its titular subject — which is to say, a film that could have been just as intense and intriguing without his presence or insight — is a strange, unintended consequence of scattered journalistic filmmaking from a place of incuriosity.

Despite Lula fighting for workers against capitalist power and governmental cults of personality (as represented by former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro), the movie ends up isolating its eponymous subject from wider social and political contexts far too often — not to mention, the intimate context of his painful life story. In the process, Stone ironically worships Lula as a personality first and foremost, rather than treating him as a nexus for rousing social change.

In this way, the film’s approach can’t help but feel antithetical to Lula’s own outlook and political credo. Stone seeks to illuminate him as a radical left wing politician in a world leaning consistently right. What this truly means beneath the façade of political aesthetics, and how it would impact Brazilian and American institutions alike, is something “Lula” doesn’t confront, and given Stone’s omnipresence in the film — he’s practically a co-lead — it comes across as something he does not wish to confront either.

In the end, “Lula” is too much about Lula da Silva, and simultaneously too little about him as well. Its focus on Lula, the icon, verges on gleefully uncritical, while its focus on Lula, the human being, slips comfortably and un-threateningly in the backdrop.

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