THE EDGE OF DEMOCRACY – movie review

Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Petra Costa
Screenwriter: Petra Costa
Cast: Dilma Rousseff, Michel Terner, Eduardo Cunha, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 6/6/19
Opens: June 19, 2019

Image result for the edge of democracy movie poster

Medical science has become so complex that Herodotus would scarcely recognize the field if he were alive today. And air travel has become considerably safer since Icarus, a fellow Greek, flew too close to the sun. One field, though, has not changed: politics. Metaphorically speaking, Athenians will always go to war to defend themselves against Spartans, Normandy will be invaded over and over, and senators will still plot against Caesar. If you are an American, as you watch “The Edge of Democracy,” therefore, you can scarcely avoid thinking of politics in our country today. Here, a president is supported largely by rural people and Evangelical Christians, opposed generally by residents of larger cities. In 1860 the country lined up between those who supported slavery and those who opposed it. Candidates will almost always try to blur distinctions, promising to unite the people, whatever that means. How can you unite men and women who have distinctly opposite views unless you compromise so much that neither side is pleased? Which gets us into politics in Brazil and Petra Costa’s documentary, which deals principally with elections from 2002 on, complete with terrific archival and current photography showing mobs of demonstrating people, and holders of political office who speak as though cheering for their team in international soccer.

Director Petra Costa, who like her mother is an intensely political person, was able to get permission to focus her lenses on the deal-makers, the senators, members of the lower house, and presidential candidates during our own century. Costa, who sees Brazilian politics through the lens of her family, narrates her doc in a mournful, elegiac voice, which could give you the impression that she is trying to put her audience to sleep or, perhaps more accurately, that she sees little hope of restoring democracy to her people. Like in the United States where more attention is being paid to the character of Trump and his appointees than on his policies, Costa is consumed not so much with the economic choices of the candidates but on their character, or at least what people with different viewpoints believe about their character.

Like our own Michael Moore, she has no intention of giving an impartial account of the sometimes riotous goings on in the upper reaches of government, but is decidedly on the left. She has only praise for the two principal characters of her story, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers’ party and his vice president, Dilma Rousseff—who became the first woman elected President of Brazil on October 31, 2010. Both enforced policies that pulled the poor out of poverty. In fact contrary to the targeted audience in American politics, the middle class, these two leaders stimulated the economy through investments in infrastructure, winning popularity of the lower classes through consequent higher employment and stronger social welfare programs. But that’s only a footnote. The drama here comes from efforts by their opponents to remove them from office through impeachment and even to throw them in jail for alleged money laundering and bribe-taking from Brazil’s big oil company.

Costa captures the electricity in the air when huge crowds of people on both sides of the spectrum demonstrate in the street waving hand-made signs attesting to their beliefs and sounding like college fraternity students during a panty raid on the girls’ dorms. At the same time we get to see Brasilia, the country’s capital, graced with contemporary architecture—a worthy addition to the movie since few of us would consider that city worth a side trip.

Lula is probably the Brazilian resident with the most support, the highest approval rating of this century, ironic enough considering that he went to jail for what looks like a trumped-up charge of accepting a free luxury apartment from a construction company. You’d probably want to go to Wikipedia for a detailed look at the policies of the two chief executives, because what comes across in the film is not detailed enough to justify impeachment of Rousseff (which succeeded) and the jailing of the popular Lula.

Ultimately, Costa mourns the loss of democracy, as the country went from the two decades’ military dictatorship ending in 1985 to a breath of fresh, democratic air; something like the brief years of the Weimar Republic in Germany 1920-1933, which turned into perhaps the worst dictatorship in history. Brazilians would probably look at the documentary to brush up on their own country’s controversies, but Americans and people throughout Europe and the Americas would see it as touchstone to help explain the sweeping rise of excessive nationalism.

120 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+