During his eight years as president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — a former steelworker and union organizer known as Lula — was often referred to as one of the most popular politicians in the world. According to one poll, his approval rating among Brazilians when he left office in 2011 was 87 percent. He was succeeded by his ally in the Workers’ Party (PT), Dilma Rousseff, an economist who had been imprisoned and tortured by the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985.
“The Edge of Democracy,” Petra Costa’s searing and enlightening new documentary, tells this story of left-wing political triumph from the perspective of its aftermath. Rousseff was impeached in 2017 and Lula is serving a prison sentence. Both were implicated in the complicated and divisive Car Wash corruption investigation. Brazil’s current president, Jair Bolsonaro, is an admirer of the old dictatorship and part of a global trend toward authoritarian, anti-liberal populism currently flourishing in the Philippines, Hungary and many other countries.
What happened? The question haunts this film and will likely haunt many of its viewers, wherever they happen to be watching. Though she is a scrupulous and dogged digger-up of hidden facts and a thoughtful interpreter of public events, Costa hasn’t produced a work of objective journalism or detached historical scholarship so much as a personal reckoning with her nation’s past and present. “The Edge of Democracy” is narrated in the first person, by the filmmaker herself (in English in the version under review, which is streaming on Netflix) in a voice that is by turns incredulous, indignant and self-questioning. It’s a chronicle of civic betrayal and the abuse of power, and also of heartbreak.
Costa doesn’t hide her political allegiances, and her candor enhances rather than undermines the credibility of her report. Her parents were left-wing activists, persecuted and driven underground in the 1960s and ’70s. Her mother and Rousseff spent time in the same prison, and Costa’s access to and comfort with the upper echelons of the Workers’ Party is evident. But her family history also connects her with the business interests — the construction industry in particular — that she argues have warped Brazilian politics and undermined its democratic, egalitarian potential.
Lula is depicted as the flawed but nonetheless authentic embodiment of that potential, a leader whose down-to-earth charisma remains consistent whether he is addressing striking workers or presiding over affairs of state. But while Costa’s portrait of him, and of Rousseff, is admiring, it is hardly uncritical. What energizes her story is the fight to achieve a measure of analytical clarity in the midst of catastrophe. Rather than cloud her vision, her sympathies sharpen it.
What she sees — what she shows — is both a thriller and epic, a tale of conspiratorial, self-interested scheming that is at the same time a saga of large historical forces and epochal shifts in power and ideology. The charges brought against Rousseff and Lula are explained as a result of betrayals that feel almost Shakespearean, a judicial and legislative coup d’état accomplished through the weaponization of laws and institutions that were supposed to be neutral.
Costa’s villains are wealthy industrialists and members of Brazil’s centrist and right-of-center parties. But her heroes had collaborated with those same parties, and Lula’s success in the mid- and late-2000s — a period of economic growth and ambitious social reform — was to some degree enabled by his accommodation of business interests and cross-partisan cooperation. One of the implications of “The Edge of Democracy” is that as Lula and the Workers’ Party lost touch with the mass movement that brought them to power and mastered the levers of the political system, they made themselves vulnerable to popular anger on the right. Corruption and back room dealing were longstanding norms of Brazilian governance that the party didn’t do much to challenge. Public frustration with government as a whole could thus be mobilized against Lula and Rousseff, whose effigies were paraded, dressed in prison stripes, at street rallies.
Footage of those rallies, and of counterdemonstrations against Rousseff’s impeachment and Lula’s arrest, suggest a ferociously polarized society, one in which the fundamental terms of national identity, collective history and truth itself are in dispute. “Order and Progress,” the idealistic slogan on the Brazilian flag, is so thoroughly mocked by this spectacle of chaos and regression that Costa finds herself wondering if the words have always been a joke.
The facts and arguments she communicates should be studied by anyone interested in the fate of democracy, in Brazil or anywhere else. The feeling her film imparts will be familiar to anyone who has experienced the politics of the past few years as a series of shocks and reversals that call into question basic assumptions about the shape of reality. “The Edge of Democracy” is a declaration of faith in the reality principle, in the idea that it’s both important and possible to understand what happened. Even if — or precisely because — none of us knows what happens next.
The Edge of Democracy
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes.