‘Lula’ Review: Oliver Stone’s Documentary About Brazilian President Is Illuminating & Accessible – Cannes Film Festival

Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva, three times president of Brazil, was born in 1945. He grew up poor in Sao Paulo and left school early to help support his family. Having trained as a lathe operator, he reached a milestone when he became the first member of his family to earn more than the minimum wage. Initially reluctant to get involved in politics, he was president of the steelworkers’ union by the time he was 30, leading a strike that achieved better wages that he saw were soon soaked up by a rise in rents. “It was time for workers to think about ruling their own country,” he says in voice-over in Oliver Stone and Rob Wilson’s documentary, simply called Lula.

It is a remarkable political career, achieved against every kind of odds, recounted with admirable thoroughness. He was working in the years when most kids are in primary school; he didn’t learn to read until he was 10. In 1980, when the end of Brazil’s 21 years of military dictatorship meant that it was possible to form political parties, he helped start the Workers’ Party. In 2002, after running as a Workers’ Party candidate unsuccessfully three times, he was elected president. In a moving snippet of the film’s wealth of archive footage, the newly elected Lula is seen smoothing out the notification of his election. For people who denigrated his lack of a degree, he said, here was his first diploma.

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That was just the start, however, of what was turned out to be an exceptionally rocky political road. Lula was elected once more before he became the most prominent target of an anti-corruption inquiry that, according to this narrative, may have begun in good faith but became essentially a campaign against Lula and his chosen successor as president, Dilma Roussef. Lula was arrested and ultimately convicted on multiple counts of bribery and money laundering in 2017, sentenced to 26 years in prison. He actually served 580 days, returning immediately after his release to political campaigning. Last year he was elected president for a third time. It was close. Stone makes the countdown a real nail-biter even though, in real life, we know the result.

Brazilians drenched in anti-Lula propaganda during the years of persecution by President Bolsonaro’s allies will find this film illuminating, since it tells Lula’s story without the strident headlines that made him out to be evil incarnate in Brazil’s strident right-wing media. Those who were always on his side will feel the thrill of vindication. But this is really a film made for outsiders, with its prime target audience being Americans. Close attention is paid to American state agencies’ involvement in Latin American politics generally and Lula’s destabilization in particular. President Obama doesn’t come out of it very well.

For everybody, it is terrifically accessible. You could come to this film with zero knowledge of Lula da Silva’s existence and come out feeling you had a good grasp on his story. America’s role is calmly but forcefully described by investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, who gives due praise to a local hacker who provided him with some incendiary raw material. It’s partisan, obviously, but not hysterically so. Corruption has been endemic to Brazilian politics for decades, Greenwald admits readily. While Lula clearly isn’t living the life of a cashed-up drug lord or even an American property developer, the charges are never comprehensively denied.

Answering those old charges is not the directors’ priority, clearly. Their emphasis is on Lula’s stated agenda – lifting Brazilians out of poverty – and personality. Oliver Stone believes in Lula as a good man, as evidenced by his commitment. He is now 78. His wife and comrade of 43 years, Marisa Leticia, died in 2017; he repartnered with Janja, a party member who worked at utility company Eletrobras. He could have spent his last years in happy domesticity, he tells Stone during what appears to have been a long interview. “But I don’t have the right to do that, because so many people are waiting for me to do something.”

The crucial weakness here, as in all Oliver Stone’s documentary interviews with the strong-man leaders he professes to admire, is Stone himself. He is an ingratiating interviewer; the questions we hear often amount to little more than “tell me why you’re so great.” Lula da Silva is obviously a different beast from some of his other subjects, notably Vladimir Putin or Fidel Castro, with whom his chummy style felt like negligence. Even so, the fact he is coming as a declared political ally and personal admirer shouldn’t stand in the way of asking more searching questions that might elicit more surprising answers. Not in order to grill his host or catch him out, but to take advantage of his exceptional access as a noted director to add to the historical record.

As it is, he has combed through the existing record very effectively to tell a good story. It is also a story that may provoke questions among Americans complacent about the work of their security services, including during the Obama years. And in a democracy, as shown in this film dealing with a country where democracy has often been on shaky ground, raising those questions cannot be a bad thing.

Title: Lula
Festival: Cannes (Special Screenings)
Directors: Oliver Stone, Rob Wilson
Sales agent: Gersh
Running time: 1 hr 30 min

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