Petra Costa, daughter of Marxist militants who protested against Brazil’s corruption in the 1970s and 80s, has attempted to carry out her own sort of revolutionary praxis with THE EDGE OF DEMOCRACY. Her film charts Brazil’s spiral from a direct democracy to quasi-fascistic oligarchy and does so sometimes evocatively, the camera lingering on faces of feckless politicians and capturing interiors in wide dolly shots to evoke a sense of something lost. Costa’s documentary, clocking in at just over two hours, is unfortunately unfocused and meandering, forfeiting a compelling initial narrative in favor of dry digressions. Costa grapples with maintaining her intimate directorial proclivities while attempting to condense a dissertation’s worth of political material into 121 minutes.
A short summary of Brazil’s political situation (per the film): former union leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or Lula as he is affectionately known in Brazil, was elected President in 2003 and sought to bring his radical ideas to fruition. Most popular of his programs was the Bolsa Familia initiative, which dispenses aid to poor Brazilians, providing they enroll their (vaccinated) children in school. Costa is clearly fond of Lola, as most Brazilians were at the time of his leaving office in 2011, the politician boasting a whopping 87 percent approval rating. Lula annointed a successor, Dilma Rousseff, the nation’s first female president, who was later impeached over criminal misconduct charges, and replaced with her center-right Vice President, Michel Temer.
Former President Lula turning the lens on us
Does Costa take on too much? Maybe. It doesn’t help that she spends too much time with talking heads who don’t progress her narrative but simply pine for the Brazil That Used To Be. She recapitulates the story of her parents, especially her mother, in whom she finds inspiration in her radical actions against Brazil’s former military dictatorship. Costa is mercilessly biased in her approach, clearly favoring the progressive Lula and Dilma over their oppressive opponents; the filmmaker recognizes that political documentaries must favor one party over another, lest they provide a platform for indecency and bigotry and inadvertently equivocate those ideas with progressive ones. This does not mean, however, that she should deify her acting protagonists. Dilma, in particular, has nary a flaw and Costa’s portrait of Lula is similarly doting, which is counter-productive.
Costa is a fairly compelling presence, both in terms of her disenchanted narration and her filmmaking techniques. She employs expansive drone footage to rich effect, capturing political upheaval from a detached bird’s eye, a strategy that puts the filmmaker a safe remove from potential reactionary violence and which allows for the scope of the widespread unrest to be felt. She doesn’t play it safe all the time, however. Some scenes locate Costa in the midst of violence between the militarized police and protesters, tear gas canisters exploding in the peripheries of the frame, as she guns right up to the action and captures the cops’ dehumanization tactics, a stone’s throw from the lens. When interviewing politicians, Costa often pans away from their faces and highlights their bodily gestures, which seem a modicum more honest than their rehearsed responses.
Dilma Roussef knowing she won’t be asked any tough questions
Other than those moments, however, the film lacks energy, and never rises beyond the structure of an impassioned op-ed. Costa’s film, in fact, occasionally borders on negligence. She fails to dive into the sexism that likely paid a part in Dilma’s downfall, for fear of, I don’t know, alienating the viewer? The viewer is also left thinking that Lula committed no crimes, and was jailed for 12 years solely due to right-wing odiousness which—even if this was the case—does not make for compelling viewing. Unwavering heroes are fine in myths and fables but when documenting a tumultuous decay of a previously prosperous country’s democracy, does it not make sense to question the integrity of the one whom you venerate? Shouldn’t the idea be that you counter the right’s insistence on blindly taking rhetoric at its word by asking questions, even about those you idolize? I didn’t much care for the film.