‘The Edge of Democracy’: Film Review | Sundance 2019

Petra Costa meditates on the successes and failures of Brazil’s Workers’ Party in the personal-political doc ‘The Edge of Democracy.’

A mournful but clear-eyed look at one of the many governments on the planet currently either going to or simmering in Hell, Petra Costa’s The Edge of Democracy is as much essay film as a primer on Brazil’s recent history. Viewing the rise and fall of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s Workers’ Party through the lens of her own family’s complicated political life, Costa mixes journalism and memoir in ways one might expect after her dreamy 2012 film Elena. Though an interlude or two may test the patience of Stateside viewers (who have had enough of watching angry protestors yell at each other about issues we actually understand, thank you very much), the doc is accessible to Americans overall, and has obvious relevance for those trying to get a handle on the rise of anti-democratic “populists” all over the globe.

Costa notes early on that she is roughly as old as Brazil’s post-dictatorship democracy, and she has other reasons to feel personally connected to it as well: Her mother and father were both radical opponents of the dictatorship, and spent time both in jail and in hiding for their beliefs. (Meanwhile, as she makes clear later in the film, Costa’s grandfather ran a construction company and was aligned with the country’s moneyed elites.)

The Bottom Line

A deeply felt rumination on a troubled political scene.

After a jarring opening scene, shot from within the car carrying the former president known simply as Lula to jail, Costa cuts to tranquil footage shot in the country’s empty Presidential Palace. Throughout, she will return to these stately shots and to hypnotizing drone footage of the city surrounding that palace: Brasilia, the utopia of modernist architecture designed to match the purest ideals of good government. Costa finds unsettling ways to visualize the distance between this ideal and what actually transpires in the capitol.

It’s over some of this footage that, in a quiet English-language voiceover, Costa sets the scene. “Imagine a country,” she suggests, “that imported more slaves than any other … that after 21 years of dictatorship, finally establishes democracy.” As hints of recent turmoil enter the picture, she concludes: “I fear our democracy was nothing but a short-lived dream.”

Without ever letting her own family get far out of sight, Costa proceeds to tell the story of Lula, who at 33 led historic steelworker-union protests. He was the embodiment of her mother’s dreams, Costa says: workers rising up to become leaders. Later, Lula would run for president several times before, having made it clear he would compromise with big business, he was elected. Costa touches on the scandals that soon arose and the reasons purists might have found to be disappointed in his rule; balancing these with the successes of Bolsa Familia and his other programs to help the poor, she explains why, when he left office after two terms, his approval rating was stunningly high.

The film then focuses on Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s “anointed successor,” whose life in some ways parallels that of Costa’s mother. (The filmmaker brings the two women together for an interesting reflection on public activism and private life.) For viewers who didn’t follow the story closely as it happened, the film’s quick explanation of how the Brazilian people soured on Rousseff in her term’s first two years may be inadequate. But footage of people in the streets makes the result clear, and Costa is more methodical as she charts the confounding political maneuvers of the next few years.

Long scenes of protesters and counter-protesters grow somewhat wearying for an American who doesn’t have an intimate enough knowledge of Brazilian daily life to intuit a speaker’s prejudices and passions. But the emotional churn is an essential backdrop to the action inside the two houses of Congress — where men in suits are shouting like soccer hooligans and the forces of Capital are taking the country back from the Workers’ Party, whose grip on power was never solid.

Costa admits to uncertainty on some of the specific allegations in the unfolding drama, but the pic’s clear position is that the impeachment of Rousseff and the criminal prosecution of Lula made a mockery of the rule of law. Over some of those drone shots of Brasilia, she plays audio of tapped phone calls that were released to the public: Elected officials and top-level businessmen make deals to get power back in the latter group’s hands and stop the anticorruption crusade throwing some of them in prison.

Costa follows Lula through to the sad eloquence of the final speech he gave before entering prison. The movie takes a deep breath, and then introduces the Trumpian loudmouth who soon won an election that would have gone to Lula if he’d been able to run. Looking again at the seat of government from high above, Costa laments the state of her nation and wonders how long it will even claim to be democratic. Tweak the specifics and the language a bit, and she’s speaking for many viewers around the world.

Production company: Busca Vida Filmes
Distributor: Netflix
Director-screenwriter: Petra Costa
Producers: Petra Costa, Joanna Natasegara, Shane Boris, Tiago Pavan
Executive producers: Lian Andrade, Josh Braun, Maxyne Franklin
Directors of photography: Joao Atala, Ricardo Stuckert
Editors: David Barker, Tina Baz, Jordana Berg, Joaquim Castro, Karen Harley, Felipe Lacerda
Composers: Rodrigo Leao, Vitor Araujo, Lucas Santtana, Gil Talmi
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)

In English, Portuguese
113 minutes