Two new films from Latin America dramatize the progressive histories of Cuba and Brazil: one an allegory, the other a biopic of a charismatic leader.
Cuban cinema was represented at the Chicago International Film Festival last month with the most politically themed film to come out of the island in quite a while. "Lisanka," a comedy drama set during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, is a cleverly constructed allegory of the nascent Cuban revolution. The heroine's name, Lisanka, is a Russified version of Lisa, concocted by a father enamored with the Soviet Union.
Lisanka is courted by three men of varying intent, each vying for the heart and soul of the beautiful tractor-driving heroine. One young man represents the bourgeois capitalist class and the hatred for the revolutionary movement that's pounding on Cuba's doorsteps. One is a revolutionary soldier defending the new progressive government. The three of them have grown up together, but now their differences form this potential battle for the heart of the country. Add to this mix a Soviet soldier newly arrived on the burgeoning socialist island, helping in its defense against the looming threat of a potential U.S. military attack, who is also love-struck by the beautiful maiden.
Lisanka represents the island itself, and the successes and mistakes of the Cuban revolution are depicted in the way that the three men court their reluctant lover. They each fail in their attempts to totally win over the complete love and trust of Lisanka. The Soviet soldier knows little of the culture and history of the island, the capitalist and socialist beaus fight, plot and threaten each other to the detriment and disappointment of the country (Lisanka) and its people.
As if the interplay isn't complex enough, director Daniel Diaz Torres adds an additional twist by adding another character, the local town prostitute, who often ends up being the most pragmatic and supportive of the revolution, and who develops the most trusting and personal relationship with Lisanka. Her tragic fate is tied in with the looming threat of American aircraft hovering over the tiny island that symbolizes the meddling interference of future U.S. aggression on the island.
But the story is kept light and fanciful, with political satire that eventually chastises all the characters one way or another. Torres is known as a sharp observer of Cuban society, exemplified in his highly controversial and daringly creative film, "Alice in Wondertown." Once again he addresses the achievements and shortcomings of the constantly maligned socialist experiment in the Western hemisphere, but in a totally entertaining and creative manner.
Brazil has been in the news recently with the exciting victory of Dilma Roussef as the country's new president. The outgoing president, Luiz Inacio da Silva, known simply as Lula by millions of Brazilians, was term-limited after eight years and Roussef was his personal choice as successor. Lula is leaving office as the most popular president in Brazil's history, with an 80 percent approval rating, higher than most any other world leader.
Producer Paula Barreto, sister of the director Fabio Barreto, appeared at the Chicago Film Festival screening and stated that "Lula, Son of Brazil," the full-length feature that was shown to millions in Brazil, had absolutely no input from the president himself. Rarely has a biopic been made about an incumbent president of a nation, but Barreto felt Lula had led an exciting and eventful life that was ripe for the big screen.
The film starts with the dramatic depiction of his poor working class childhood, threatened by an abusive alcoholic father. As a result Lula bonded closely with his siblings and loving mother who all played a close role in his rise to leadership in the nation. He learned to read when he was 10 and dropped out of school in the fourth grade to work to help feed the family. Later he became a lathe operator in a factory and lost one of his fingers in a work accident when he was 19. His brother, Frei Chico, a communist union leader, had a great influence on his political activism and Lula worked his way up the ladder of the steelworkers union.
Tragedy followed him constantly, however. He married his childhood sweetheart who died giving birth to their first child, a son, who also died during the delivery. He later married a fellow worker who was a widow with a son the same age as his would have been.
As he gained prominence in the workers' struggle in Brazil, he often spoke at large rallies. These scenes are dramatically recreated in the film using actual footage to augment the action. He spent time in jail during the military junta, and was released only to attend the funeral of his beloved mother.
The film moves at a dramatic pace as one eventful scene follows another, and Lula continually gains a strong following as he leads the largest country in Latin America out of poverty into the modern world with a sound economy.
Lula's popularity was obviously pumped by his record of reducing hunger and moving over 30 million Brazilians out of poverty during his term. The controversial but highly successful Bolsa Familia social program helped turn the economy around and now Brazil is the eighth largest economy in the world.
The film utilizes several actors who convincingly portray Lula at different stages in his life. The film is reminiscent of "The Motorcycle Diaries," another history of a great political leader, lovingly and beautifully told. "Lula, Son of Brazil" is scheduled for release soon and this is a rare opportunity to see the history of an emerging country through the life of a progressive leader.
Photo: Scene from "Lula, Son of Brazil." Confraria de Cinema