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Lula Review: One Stone Overturned

Cannes 2024

8 mins read

(USA/Brazil, 90 min.)
Dir. Oliver Stone, Rob Wilson


As a run-up for a campaign event, or even as a kind of generalist overview with a clear mandate to not ask challenging questions, Lula serves its purpose well. To dismiss it as mere propaganda would be unfair, but its breathless support and near hagiographic tone for Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva makes it lean towards the sanctification of its subject. At the same time, it presents a unique perspective on a complex figure that had dramatically shaped decades of his country’s political and social landscape.

Co-directed with Rob Wilson, whom one can suspect did the vast majority of the heavy lifting in crafting this handsome and well-paced treatment, the central element of Lula is a sit-down interview between director Oliver Stone and a post-incarcerated Lula as he sets out on another presidential run.

There’s obviously a negative tendency implied in calls for both-sidesism, and the issue with the film isn’t that it adores its subject. The problem is that it’s not particularly effective at even playing by these narrow rules, presenting little more than a Wiki-level articulation of Lula’s well-known rise from union organizer to president. A series of softball questions by the giddily smiling Stone prove the filmmaker incapable of either a relevant follow up or a truly probing interrogation.

Brazil’s complicated politics are fascinating, and the rise of Bolsonaro is but one fascinating tendency in a nation that’s long had a populist streak. While the documentary presents Lula return in a Lazarus-like fashion, there’s nothing here to even attempt to explain the 49.9% of the population that holds entirely different perspectives, other than to say, as per Stone’s usual wont, it’s all the CIA’s fault.

The film makes a strong case for media manipulation in the take down of Lula, only to then celebrate Glenn Greenwald’s use of phone hacking to foster Lula’s own rise back to power. The shamelessness in these exchanges, where media manipulation is poisonously corrosive unless done for “good” reasons, is but one element that further emphasises how narrow if not downright vacuous this entire project is.

A real interviewer would have had Lula explain just what transpired that resulted in his arrest, rather than blanket the whole thing with conspiracy. Lula ran on an anti-corruption ticket, and was surrounded by those who continued the longstanding tradition of engaging in these activities. Never is he held accountable for at the least tacitly allowing this to continue, even if going to jail after being convicted on money laundering charges in 2018 may seem like an overreaction.

Similarly, the collapse of other like-minded leftist leaders in the region is entirely spun as the fault of foreign interference. The film ignores the myriad ways that corruption, mismanagement, and violent suppression were also trademarks that coupled the political operations. This isn’t to ignore the very real external pressures against such populist moves, but to show that this stuff is complicated, and at every stage, Stone and Wilson’s film tries to simplify it to “left good, right bad; U.S. the worst.”

It’s not as if we haven’t seen immensely more sophisticated examinations of Brazil’s political turmoil. Petra Costa’s remarkable 2019 film The Edge of Democracy is a brilliantly nuanced look at the various forces at play, an inside observation from the perspective of someone raised within the elite at the unique issues at hand in her country, but also the universal effects that result from power’s corrosive forces, no matter which part of the political spectrum one lays claim.

Looking back at Lula through this lens, Stone and Wilson’s film feels all the more insipid, little more than the kind of thing you’d play at someone’s birthday party to make them feel good about their accomplishments. It’s beyond simply being biased—it’s about how uninteresting such biased portrayals can be, superficial even in its attempts to aggrandize its subject.

The film adds to something of a documentary decline for Stone following his equally misguided mess about nuclear energy that made a fascinating subject secondary to the famous filmmaker himself as he spoke about how both COVID and AIDS were government conspiracies. With his JFK film, the quackery continued and invited commentary by Trumpian conspiracy fans who decry fake news but adore indications that the government is out to get them.

So while Lula may be slightly more innocuous, and its well-paced construction is indicative of skilled assembly presumably by Wilson and his team, there’s little here with which to gain any real insight into the subject’s policies, ideas, or even his goals for the next administration. Almost simultaneous to the film’s screening at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Lula shook the markets with the firing of the state oil company’s CEO, causing further uncertainty in an already precarious economic situation for the country. Perhaps this is a sign of a move towards “state capitalism,” or maybe part of further moves in his second tenure. In Stone’s telling, there’s nothing to help guide one’s understanding of the motivations save for some empty sloganeering.

The best thing one can probably say about Lula is that it does little harm. Even the suggestions of nefarious U.S. manipulation have no teeth, and the complexities of Brazil’s situation do not allow for easy blame compartmentalization. For viewers who are completely unaware of this remarkable subject, they’ll get a tease. For audiences hoping for something more, they’re sure to be disappointed in Stone’s latest documentary folly. It’s another entry in an increasing line of empty films on subjects worthy of deeper levels of examination squandered in favour of yet again centreing upon the filmmaker’s own predilections and prejudices.

Lula premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor/Chief Critic at ThatShelf.com and a regular contributor for POV Magazine, RogerEbert.com and CBC Radio. His has written for Slashfilm, Esquire, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Screen Anarchy, HighDefDigest, Birth.Movies.Death, IndieWire and more. He has appeared on CTV NewsChannel, CP24, and many other broadcasters. He has been a jury member at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, Calgary Underground Film Festival, RiverRun Film Festival, TIFF Canada's Top 10, Reel Asian and Fantasia's New Flesh Award. Jason has been a Tomatometer-approved critic for over 20 years.

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