THE EDGE OF DEMOCRACY – movie review

THE EDGE OF DEMOCRACY
Netflix
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net 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+

ARABY – movie review

ARABY (Arábia)

Grasshopper Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: João Dumans, Affonso Uchôa
Screenwriter:  João Dumans, Affonso Uchôa
Cast:  Aristedes de Sousa, Murilo Caliari, Renata Cabral, Glaucia Vandeveld
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/25/18
Opens: June 22, 2018
Arábia (2017)
João Dumans and Affonso Uchôa, who wrote and direct “Araby,” focus on the type of person who is ignored by politicians whether in Brazil or here in the U.S.  While candidates for office regularly talk about how they are for the middle class (never mind how they are really for the upper 10% or 0.1% with Bernie Sanders as an exception), none are for the poor.  The poor don’t vote.  The homeless certainly do not vote.  So why bother?  With “Araby,” though, we are launched into an episodic struggle of those in Brazil who are uneducated, only partially literate, and having little or no knowledge of how politics makes the world go ‘round—except for them.

But if the world cannot go round for Cristiano (Aristides de Sousa), the principal character can himself go round albeit not worldwide or even Brazil-wide but throughout that wonderful country’s southern state of Minas Gerais.  The province is treated unsympathetically, with Cristiano an allegorical figure representing the difficulty of making even a basic living for someone who is brought up in a small town and probably thinks that Rio is on the other side of the world. In a twenty-minute introduction, one which could be cut without losing the epic quality of the movie, Andre (Murilo Caliari) is a teen lad taking care of his kid brother—who believes in the Devil but not in God because look at all the “shootings and killings.” His life is full of dull routines, but when he finds a memoir written in a notebook and perhaps imagines some of what he reads, he unfolds the tale of the wandering Cristiano.

Cristiano has a sense of adventure.  After all, life looks dreary and mean for a man who stays in a small town and who thinks he can achieve a better living on the road and doubtless could meet people from various backgrounds, each stranger-becoming-friend adding to his memories.  As he says, what do we have except what we remember?  He takes on factory jobs and farm labor, in one case picking tangerines but finding after his hard work that the boss has no money to pay him.  But the foreman allows Cristiano to fill up a bag with tangerines and sell them on the road, which he does, and being without money spends a day or so eating nothing but the fruit.  When he runs into a person who had once become a “troublemaker,” organizing a union of 200 farm laborers, he managed to pull off a strike which left the tangerines about to rot until the owner gives in and pays a living wage.  Cristiano becomes political.

Even this trip, rich in human contacts but pathetic income, beats the year that he had spent in jail after a car theft gone wrong.  The one person who gives him hope is Ana (Renata Cabral), a 35-year-old bookkeeper.  They develop a relationship, she has a miscarriage, he thinks that the woman is not for him–until he reads a love letter from her.  Ultimately, though, he notes that “we sow so much, but reap so little.”

The film is filled with songs particularly absorbing because they are in the lyrical Portuguese language, albeit Brazilian style. The most involving one is Townes Van Zandt’s “I’ll Be Here in the Morning” (available free on youtube, go check it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AjGOxo0KDMs.

While some of us will leave the theater wondering whether Cristiano would have been better off staying put, given the crashing of his view that anything can happen, others will conclude that poverty aside, at least he has gained more insight into life than he could not have had without his travels, the trips having the auto-didactic quality of making him realize more about himself and about his world.  This film is for those who do not need flash or pomp but for theatergoers who are patient, appreciative an in-depth view of a single person who is impacted by what he sees and hears.

The title comes from a joke about an Arab–by a worker to his lunch pals. In Portuguese, English subtitles.

Unrated. 96  minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B+
Overall – B