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Lula, Brazil's president, is focus of upcoming film

'Lula, Son of Brazil' will dramatize President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's early years. Bruno Barreto, the brother of the director, likens it to a 'Rocky Balboa story.'

October 06, 2009|Chris Kraul

RIO DE JANEIRO — Rio de Janeiro's landing of the 2016 Olympics last week gave Brazilians reason to cheer for Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, their popular president who lobbied heavily on behalf of the city's bid.

Soon, they'll be able to applaud his image on the big screen.

The $10-million film "Lula, Son of Brazil" will be released across the country in January.

According to producers at LC Barreto Productions, the film will dramatize the president's early years, which they describe with Hollywood-worthy hyperbole as "mythic" and "heroic."

"Lula is a Rocky Balboa story," said Bruno Barreto, the Oscar-nominated director ("Four Days in September") who is the son of the studio founder and whose brother is "Lula" director Fabio Barreto. "It always works."

Since Lula took office in 2003, most Brazilians have supported him as he guided the economy through global crisis, extended social benefits to the poor and projected a positive image at home and abroad.

He enjoys an 81% approval rating, which the studio hopes will ensure big earnings at the domestic box office and an international distribution deal.

At the same time, the studio says Lula's lesser-known early years make for more compelling box office than his two presidential terms.

Based on an authorized biography written by Denise Parana, the film opens with Lula as a boy living amid squalor in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, moves through his years as a Sao Paulo metalworker and powerful labor leader and ends in 1980, after he was jailed by the military dictatorship for his organizing activities.

Highlighted are his family's struggle to adjust to the Sao Paulo urban jungle, his rise to the top of the metalworkers union, the loss of a finger in an industrial accident and the 1971 death of his first wife in their son's stillbirth.

"This is a man who spent his youth in misery, drinking water out of a trough with cattle, on some days eating only coffee mixed with flour," said Parana, who shares the screenwriting credit. "It's not just his misery but that of many Brazilians."

The script's treatment of Lula's youth will try to tug at Brazilians' heartstrings, showing him as a street vendor who protected his mother against an abusive husband. So precarious were the early years for Lula and his seven siblings that his mother said it was a miracle none of her children became thieves or prostitutes.

"It's not about a politician but a simple story of a man who overcame tragedy and tremendous odds," said Rui Ricardo, the 31-year-old actor who plays Lula. "His life is like a work of fiction . . . [and] proof that any Brazilian, without education, money or standing, can become an extraordinary man."

A film about a sitting Brazilian president has never been done, and it carries certain box-office risks. Poor Brazilians who form the base of Lula's political support are not big moviegoers.

"The people who approve of Lula can't afford to go to the movies, and the people who don't love him can," said Fabio Barreto, whose 1995 film "O Quatrilho" was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film.

The producers are nervous about their movie opening shortly after the scheduled Brazilian premiere in December of "Avatar," the long-awaited film by Titanic director James Cameron. "Avatar" will show on more than one-third of Brazil's 2,200 movie screens, and Barreto worries that it will monopolize entertainment budgets.

The Barretos have taken flack for the financing of the movie. Instead of using public money that is offered to Brazilian film producers, they accepted contributions from a dozen corporate sponsors, including Volkswagen, Hyundai and other contributors to Lula's political campaigns.

Executive producer Paula Barreto, Fabio's sister, said relying on the corporate funding helped void any appearance of using taxpayer money for a movie about a politician still in office.

But observers such as film critic Hermes Leal of movie magazine Cinema said the practice gave fat cats a chance to curry favor with Lula.

The filmmakers are counting on Ricardo, who has no film experience, little name recognition and has spent his career doing soap operas and theater, to keep people focused on Lula's rags-to-riches tale.

Fabio Barreto said Ricardo captured Lula's looks and character. "Rui came to audition for the part of a male nurse," he said. "But no, he was Lula."

Paula Barreto said her company was considering a four-part TV miniseries on Lula's life that might bring his story up to contemporary times.

Such a series might include less savory aspects of Lula's political career.

Three years ago, he was forced into a runoff election after a series of scandals tarnished his image. Transcripts of wiretaps had Lula's brother Genival asking a gambling kingpin for $2,000. The brother later insisted he was asking for a loan.

Lula overcame three failed presidential candidacies and an earlier perception by some that he was a loser.

"In Brazil, there are no losers," said Fabio Barreto, "only people who keep trying until they succeed."


Kraul is a special correspondent.

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