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Review: ‘The Edge of Democracy’ is an edge-of-your-seat dive into Brazilian politics

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Three former presidents of Brazil, from left — Michel Temer (2016-18), Dilma Rousseff (2011-16) and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (2003-10) — from the documentary “The Edge of Democracy.”
(Orlando Brito / Netflix)
Film Critic

With our own round-the-clock political circus to contend with, Americans may be forgiven for thinking we have a lock on dramatic, disturbing political theater. Not so, “The Edge of Democracy” insists. Not so at all.

Directed by Petra Costa, this completely fascinating documentary provides an unexpectedly compelling inside look at the political earthquakes that have been roiling Brazil for several years.

More a thoughtful film essay than a classic doc, “Edge” takes us through the shocks and aftershocks that have seen one president impeached, another imprisoned, and a third elected despite (or maybe because of) being a vocal supporter of torture and dictatorship.

“This is not just a story of betrayal,” Costa says in the sophisticated, regretful voice-over that is one of the film’s strengths. “This is a story of democracy itself crumbling.”

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Describing herself as “roughly the same age as Brazilian democracy,” which began in 1985 after a period of military dictatorship, Costa convincingly posits herself as the ideal person to tell this tale, to wonder aloud “was democracy only a short-lived dream?”

“The story of this crisis,” she explains, “runs directly through my family.”

On the one hand, Costa’s wealthy construction company-owning grandparents are card-carrying members of the powerful oligarchy that has run her country since forever.

But on the other hand, her parents were political radicals who named her in honor of a colleague murdered by the state and spent a decade in hiding organizing against the military regime.

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That duality has given her exceptional access to the key players, especially two former presidents, the now-imprisoned Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, called “the most popular politician on earth” by Barack Obama and universally known as Lula, and his designated successor, Dilma Rousseff, always known as Dilma.

A survivor of torture by the military regime, Dilma had for a time been in the same prison that had housed Costa’s mother, and listening to the two of them chat casually about “the immense freedom of being in hiding, you’ll never be that anonymous again” is one of the film’s many enthralling sequences.

But far and away the film’s biggest asset is Costa’s sensibility. To hear her English-language voice-over is the equivalent of sitting next to the most fascinating person at a dinner party, someone able to knowledgeably fill you in on things you had little or no idea existed.

Front and center in “Edge” is the charismatic figure of Lula, the embodiment of his country’s democratic dreams and someone whose initial career allowed Costa to hope that “Brazil had finally broken its curse.”

First glimpsed 40 years ago in newsreel footage as the young and vibrant 33-year-old head of Brazil’s steelworkers union, Lula formed the Workers’ Party in 1980 and ran for president in 1988. He didn’t win.

In fact, he lost several more times before pragmatically moderating his positions and winning the first of his two terms in 2002.

When asked about his willingness to compromise, even with archrival party PSDB, Lula explained, “If Jesus came to Brazil, he would have to make an alliance even with Judas.”

During Lula’s eight years in office, his government’s programs, especially a grant program called Bolsa Familia, were the catalyst for enormous societal change in Brazil.

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But nearly a decade in power had distanced the Workers’ Party from the people in the streets, leading to anti-government demonstrations.

Then came Operation Car Wash, an investigation into bribery and corruption led by a judge named Sérgio Moro and involving politicians and Petrobras, Brazil’s enormous petroleum conglomerate.

Initially the investigation seemed bipartisan, and it soon became clear that corruption in Brazil was so endemic that lower-level members of the Workers’ Party had taken bribes.

What “Edge” is especially good at is detailing how Costa gradually began to see things differently, to see the corruption investigation as an attempt by the oligarchy to reassert itself, to take power via a kind of legislative/judicial coup because it could not do so by the ballot.

The impeachment of Dilma, not for accepting bribes but for authorizing what is described as a debatable governmental accounting practice, came first in 2016.

Then Lula, increasingly divisive but still hugely popular, was sentenced to 12 years in prison on what seemed to be trumped-up bribery charges for which no solid evidence was produced.

Though “Edge of Democracy” had its premiere at Sundance in January, its figures remain in the news. In fact, a bombshell story supporting Costa’s version of events broke in Brazil just a week ago, with judge Moro accused of unethically colluding with Lula’s prosecutors.

Where this will end is far from clear, but “Edge” and its filmmaker do offer a bit of hope for Brazil. “The opposition can kill 1,000 roses,” someone says, “but it can’t stop the arrival of spring.”

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‘The Edge of Democracy’

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes

Playing: Starts Wednesday, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; also on Netflix


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