Lula Onscreen: Brazil's President as Superhero

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Otavio de Souza

The actor Rui Ricardo Dias plays President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Fábio Barreto's film Lula, Son of Brazil

The Brazilian officials organizing the film premiere of Lula, Son of Brazil probably weren't thinking of the biopic's subject when they chose the music to be played before the curtain went up. But the subliminal connection with President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was hard to ignore: "You're the One That I Want," "I Will Always Love You," the theme to the James Bond and Rocky flicks and then — almost inevitably — just moments before the film began, the uplifting bars of the theme to Superman.

It's been that kind of a year for Lula; even in the middle of the worst global economic crisis in 80 years, everything went right for him. His government lowered interest rates to a level not seen in decades, and foreign reserves rose to a record high. Brazil was last into and first out of the recession, and domestic consumption remained high as the gap between rich and poor narrowed at an unprecedented rate. Rio de Janeiro became the first South American city to win the right to host the Olympics. Meanwhile, Lula's opposition flailed aimlessly. His personal popularity regularly exceeded 70%, leading Barack Obama to call him "the man." In perhaps the most remarkable turnaround, and certainly the most ironic, the former economic basket case even offered to lend money to the International Monetary Fund.

None of this, however, is in Lula, Son of Brazil, the two-hour epic that opens across Latin America's biggest nation on Jan. 1. With a secondary billing that goes "You know the man, but you don't know his story," the film vaults through the episodes that marked Lula's early years and his remarkable rise from poor to powerful. Starting in the scrubland of the northeast, where he was born one of eight kids, it follows him to São Paulo, where he suffered at the hands of an abusive and alcoholic father. It shows him as a boy selling fruit and shining shoes for pennies and then struggling through technical college and winning a job as a metalworker in a car factory.

In a style that owes much to Brazil's famous soap operas, in which every movement, emotion and line drips with melodrama, the film depicts him losing a finger in a lathe accident and then his wife and son in childbirth, before he bounces back to lead the powerful metalworkers' union in historic strikes that challenged the country's military dictatorship.

Little-known actor Rui Ricardo Dias does a fine job portraying Lula from young man to adult, but the film glosses over Lula's frailties, depicting him as a man who can do no wrong. "The director omitted episodes in Lula's life that suggest the President has weaknesses or defects," said Veja, a popular right-wing newsmagazine. "Basically, it's a terrible film," wrote critic Ricardo Calil.

Producer Paula Barreto acknowledges the film rounds out some of Lula's rough edges but says such is the concessionary nature of making biopics. "It's a film, and cinema is about choices. You have to leave things out," Barreto tells TIME. "What was important was that I wanted to portray that conciliatory side of him — the man who brought people together, who always wanted to talk and negotiate and was never radical."

The problem is that portraying Lula as a saint stretches credulity. Brazilians know and admire the man who dragged himself up from poverty to become President of the world's fifth most populous nation. But while the film ends in 1980, the years since have produced a different Lula, the intemperate leader who swears in public and rails at the press for investigating graft, and whose government was tainted by one of the most egregious corruption schemes in Brazilian history.

Because the poor — the main source of Lula's support — usually don't go to the movies in Brazil (more than 90% of the country's municipalities do not even have a cinema), Barreto says the movie company is offering cheap tickets to union members and plans to show the film on mobile screens in rural areas. They are also prescreening the film for some of Lula's critics in the hope they will give it two thumbs up, thereby potentially attracting more middle-class viewers. But just who will pay to see it remains a concern. "The biggest problem will be getting people who don't like Lula to see the film," she admits. "I am very worried about it."

The timing of the movie's release, at the start of an election year, is also controversial. The opposition, still looking bland and disorganized, is worried it could be one more glamorous nail in its coffin. Lula is determined to have his handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff, elected, and a feature film starring him as a sainted everyman can only add to his appeal and help Lula bring her vital votes in the October election.

The opposition is also concerned that the film could help prolong Lula's political life after he leaves the presidency. The 64-year-old is constitutionally prohibited from seeking a third consecutive term but has hinted he is not ready to retire definitively from politics. "Lula is very popular, and his political life is not over," says João Augusto de Castro Neves, a political analyst in the capital, Brasília. "He could still be President in 2014 or have another political position. I think the intention with the film is almost to provoke the opposition. Lula is so popular that no one is going to question it."

Lula saw the film but was, says Barreto, too emotional to voice his opinion. That must have been a first for Lula, a giant among conversationalists. But when you're a superhero like Lula, you are free to set the rules. And the music.