Does a Great Man Deserve a Great Biopic?

01/11/2012 4:00 AM |

Lula, Son of Brazil
Directed by Fábio Barreto

It’s become cliché to complain about the episodic and uneven nature of most biopics, how by reducing an expansive and complex life to a few hours of screen time crucial nuances are lost and defining characteristics become demeaning platitudes. But the complaint has rarely felt more appropriate than in regards to Fábio Barreto’s Lula, Son of Brazil, a too-reverent ode to the country’s former president that’s so by-the-book any magazine profile of the man—former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva—would likely give as much biographical information and greater insight. That this is the country’s submission for Best Foreign Film seems more a point of national, rather than artistic, pride.

Like a scientific formula that needs to be balanced, there are few moments in Lula that don’t have a mirror in the build-up/pay-off equation. Early scenes of political apathy are there to contrast with Lula’s (Rui Ricardo Diaz) subsequent devotion to his causes; discussions of a failed violent riot coincidentally prep the viewer for a later push towards nonviolent civil disobedience. Meanwhile Lula’s personal life is boiled down to his looking at only two women in his life and falling in love at first sight with both.

This is a shame as Lula is by all accounts a supremely fascinating individual whose dramatic story is worth hearing. Rising from abject poverty to become an incorruptible union head—where the film ends—he established a Worker’s Party he then lead through two terms unanimously considered effective and progressive. But what’s good for the country is not always good for cinema, and the film’s refusal to give its hero any flaws or complexity irrevocably deadens its interest. Lula never seems to struggle or doubt himself, threats from the opposition seem perfunctory at best with no risk of setbacks, and Diaz’s uncharismatic lead performance only heavies the load.

There’s tremendous potential here, but it feels appropriate that the film’s postscript notes how Time, Newsweek and Bono would all grow to consider Lula influential, as if assuring the audience it’s subject had been worthwhile.

Opens January 13