Building on the boneless The Motorcycle Diaries template, Lula, Son of Brazil takes a complex, controversial political figure—in this case longtime Brazilian Workers’ Party firebrand and two-term President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—and purées him into a generalized, insipidly inspirational character whose real-life achievements are supposed to automatically imbue stilted, undernourished drama with interest. Starting with Lula’s 1945 birth and braking in 1980 before the launch of his political career, Fábio Barreto’s biopic sprawls like three underdog narratives, all of them trite. The first one envisions the protagonist’s childhood in Brazil’s arid backlands as a hollow abbreviation of Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s Vidas Secas, with little Lula (Felipe Falanga) torn between his long-suffering mother (Glória Pires, stuck with a mask of weather-beaten nobility) and his tippling, cartoonishly angry father (Milhem Cortaz). The second one is a standard coming-of-age teen drama, with adolescent Lula (Guilherme Tortólio) zipping through a laundry list of Firsts (First Diploma, First Job, First Girlfriend) while assorted chunks of 1960s newsreel footage work overtime to paint a background of unrest as the nation enters its right-wing dictatorial regime.
Finally, the film settles into a tepid portrait of dawning political awareness, with adult Lula (Rui Ricardo Diaz) gradually sprouting his trademark beard as he graduates from exploited metalworker to driven union leader and shakes up 1970s São Paulo. If the third section plays the strongest, it’s mainly due to Ricardo Diaz’s performance, which relies not merely on mimicry of Lula’s voice and gestures, but also on an understanding of the man’s shrewd use of his unpolished persona as an emblem of working-class tenacity. Even then, however, Barreto maintains a shallow, hagiographic tone interrupted once or twice by maternal bromides (“Work first…then play,” Lula is told following a mild night of carousing). A safe, bourgeois vision of proletarian struggle, Lula, Son of Brazil begins with the pregnant image of a door opening into the light, but concludes more appropriately with a montage of celebrity handshaking.