‘Lula’ Review: Oliver Stone’s Portrait of Brazil’s President Captures a Remarkable Story

While often lacking in depth, there remains a value to a documentary like Oliver Stone’s “Lula.” This is not just because of its subject, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who went from being imprisoned to holding the country’s highest office, but because of who he defeated to do so.

Jair Bolsonaro, the former president who is currently under investigation over whether he incited a failed coup after losing in 2022, is but one of the more recent sore loser right-wing authoritarians to gain power and then be rather unwilling to let it go when ultimately voted out.

Making a documentary about this upheaval of politics in Brazil, how it was that we got here and what it means for the future of the country as well as the world writ large, is a worthwhile pursuit. Stone doesn’t always get there as robustly or as comprehensively as one would hope him to, frequently getting caught up in something closer to hagiography, though enough pieces are there. There is more of this story to tell, but there are certainly worse places to start than here.

Premiering Sunday in a special screening at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival, Stone introduced the film by making explicit how much he holds his subject in high esteem, saying “this film is about a very special person in the world today” and that he “admire[s] this man deeply” before somewhat cheekily slipping in that “I know many of the people in the richer classes hate him.”

This short opening speech proved to be as good an encapsulation of the documentary as any. The filmmaker’s admiration for his subject is felt throughout. In everything from the intimate interviews the director did with Lula, which end up being surprisingly not all that present in key stretches, to the narration he gives providing his perspective on the way the political figure was treated, there is no escaping how much Stone was swept up in his story. This doesn’t compromise the film too much because it often plays as more of an extended video essay making arguments than a conventional documentary. Oh, and the director is also completely open about where he is coming from.

Most importantly, there is still a lot of valuable information that gets covered here. Even when it only touches on some aspects of the political environment of Brazil under Bolsonaro, like when the destruction of the Amazon is referenced and how Stone makes the case for why Lula is better on this, that just again provides an opportunity to look elsewhere for more insight. A great next documentary would be something like Alex Pritz’s urgent “The Territory.” Though it would likely make for a better and more informative watch about its subject than this, “Lula” is still an interesting historical document that captures this moment in time.

As it tracks the circumstances that led to Lula’s incarceration, his subsequent release and his successful presidential run, the small circle of subjects Stone chooses to speak with can feel a little stifling. Where are some of the other historians and journalists who have been following this story for years? You can feel their absence as we breeze by many details behind the big headlines that get thrown in left and right via recurring archival news coverage.

“Lula” is a film that goes for the big, broad strokes of the story rather than cutting deeper into any of it. Still, the journey it takes us on is a remarkable one and, when it all comes down to it, Stone still effectively immerses us in the context of the moment when Lula defeated Bolsonaro. It was a transformative turning point for the country and one of the most significant recent modern political upsets.

So while “Lula” might not have the same transformative power, it sufficiently channels what already was there. Hopefully, its viewers then continue beyond where it stops.

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