Lula is a lulu, and not in a good way [MOVIE REVIEW]

lula movie

Lula opens tonight at the Laemmle Music Hall and Pasadena Playhouse.

Luis Ignacio “Lula” da Silva is truly one of the world’s most fascinating political leaders. Bubbling up from the rural slums in Santos and living in a poverty too draconian for the first world to imagine, he is a case of brilliance, cunning, compassion and revolutionary zeal integrated within a natural-born leader who brought change to the social and economic structure of Brazil during his term as president between 2002 and 2010. Based on the book by Denise Paraná, who shares screenwriting credit, director Fábio Barreto has succeeded in turning “Lula. Son of Brazil” into a second-rate Lifetime Movie of the Week.

Told linearly from the time of his birth, the audience is fed sketchy details of Lula’s early life with his mother, his schooling, his work life at the São Paulo Volkswagen plant, his initial union activities, and what the filmmakers put forth as his almost accidental entrée into union politics under the shadow of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil in the 1960s and jailed him for 31 days (not exactly awe-inspiring). Played at various stages of his life by different young actors, all of whom seem to have been chosen based on their ability to blink in astonishment on cue, the other characters populating this story seem to fall into the categories of beautiful and doomed or fat, ugly and corrupt. Better the film should have been called “The Ascension of St. Lula.”

Neither Paraná nor Barreto does Lula a favor with this hagiographic docudrama bio-pic. In real life, Lula da Silva is a truly great and complex man. Tuned into the poor and truly wishing to improve the life of the average Brazilian, he has also been hounded by accusations of corruption. That he was able to overcome a Dickensian background and rise to become the leader of the largest and potentially richest country in Latin America – one maintaining cordial relationships with George W. Bush and the late Muammar Gaddafi — is nothing short of miraculous. But to imply that he arrived untarnished by the dirt that the partnership of power and corruption impart is nothing short of ludicrous. That Barreto was able to make such a boring film out of such a great story is criminal. Brother of the great Brazilian director Bruno Barreto (“Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands”), Fabio clearly learned nothing from the time he spent as an assistant on Bruno’s films. In a significant side note, weeks prior to the release of this film in Brazil, Fabio Barreto was involved in a horrific car accident and has been in a coma since that time.

Still, choosing this drivel as Brazil’s official entry to the Oscar race for foreign film is an indication that someone is trying mighty hard to curry favor with Lula’s successor. One can only hope that this isn’t the best that Brazil has to offer cinematically.

If you are truly interested in the life and accomplishments of Lula, and you should be, read the profile of him in the December 5, 2011 edition of The New Yorker by Nicholas Lemann titled “The Anointed. Brazil’s ex-revolutionary President.” Don’t waste your time on this film. I did so that you don’t have to.

Opening in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall and Pasadena Playhouse 7 on January 27.

Neely also writes a blog called No Meaner Place about writers in television and film.

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