‘Edge of Democracy’ Film Review: Documentary About Brazilian Politics Finds Echoes Close to Home

Petra Costa’s sobering film chronicles a country swinging to the right and a nationalist authoritarian taking over

Edge of Democracy
Orlando Brito/ courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

There’s a right-wing candidate who unexpectedly rose to power on a wave of nationalist anger despite a history of making rude and racist comments. A woman from a left-wing party vying to become the country’s first female leader. Cries to not just defeat politicians, but to lock them up. Rampant corruption growing out of campaign financing. A country “divided into two irreconcilable parts,” in the words of one observer.

The country in question, by the way, is Brazil, and the observer is filmmaker Petra Costa, whose sobering documentary, “Edge of Democracy,” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. And if the echoes of the United States are unmistakable and disquieting, that was no doubt the point of Sundance giving the film a coveted opening-night berth.

But it’s not the only reason to give the film a prime timeslot. “Edge of Democracy,” as sprawling and occasionally confusing as it can be, is a powerful document of a wave of nationalism sweeping both Europe and the Americas in recent years.

But it started with a personal story. The daughter of two militants who organized protests against the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil until 1988, Costa is a patriot who grew up in the country’s early flush of democracy and now mourns the increasingly authoritarian streak she sees in her homeland.

The film is both vast and intimate; it covers decades of Brazilian history, focusing on the rise of the Workers’ Party (PT) under Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (known to everyone as Lula) and later Dilma Rousseff, a former left-wing activist who had been jailed and tortured by the military dictatorship in the 1970s. Costa received extensive access to Lula and Rousseff, which allows her to capture the currents of history as seen in the private, human moments that are the film’s strength.

Costa narrates the film herself, in a voice tinged with sadness; even before we hear the details, we know from her tone that this movie is going to be a lament.

The story is sobering: Lula, a former labor union organizer, ran for president and lost several times until he began making deals with the country’s biggest companies. He enjoyed unprecedented popularity during his years in office, leaving in 2010 with an approval rating of more than 80 percent.

His term, though, had not been without controversy, from his pragmatic but troubling compromises with the right-wing Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) to a series of scandals tied to construction contracts and campaign financing.

For those without a clear grasp of Brazilian history, the issues can be muddy, the scale daunting, but Costa grounds it in the personal as much as the political; wherever she turns in this chronicle, she finds family connections.

She traces a “seismic shift” in the country to 2013 when protests over a rise in bus fare expanded into a widespread right-wing uprising that at times seemed to feel affection for the law-and-order days of the military dictatorship.

Before long, an investigation that came to be called “Car Wash” was launched, ostensibly to look into corruption and shady dealings between politicians and the country’s largest construction companies. But as it expands, the film documents an investigation that seemingly outstrips its stated intent and becomes a vehicle with which to dismantle the left, from Lula (currently in jail after a trial that seems politically motivated at best) to Rousseff (impeached in another suspicious move).

It can be hard to tell the players without a scorecard, and Costa’s film is more effective at tracking political shenanigans than explaining why a huge chunk of the population would turn on Lula and his party and suddenly embrace retired military officer Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right populist who came to power touting family values as he spewed anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-affirmative action rhetoric..

“They call me rude, homophobic, racist,” he proudly says to Costa’s camera. “I’m a hero.”

Costa clearly doesn’t agree, and neither will most of the viewers attracted to “Edge of Democracy.” And if the film never quite comes to terms with the why of Bolsonaro’s support, it may well be she has trouble tracking the social winds of change simply because they’re so unimaginable to her.

“In Bulsonaro’s cosmology, militants like my parents should have been killed,” she says, lamenting “a country that had never punished people for the crimes committed under military role…a country built on forgetting.”

In laying out the facts, Costa is, for the most part, posing a series of sad questions rather than supplying the answers; in truth, she may not know whether she’s documenting a stormy political era or chronicling the end of something.

“Here we are,” she says, “with one president impeached, another arrested and the country moving toward its authoritarian past. I fear our democracy is nothing but a short-lived dream.”

That fear makes “Edge of Democracy” a requiem, not a rant; it’s both a huge national story (a tragedy to many) and its the story of a family that saw its dream fulfilled and now sees its dream slipping away.

But its Sundance premiere, a prime opening-night slot at a prestige festival in a country whose own leader is an avowed admirer of Bolsonaro, makes it more than that. The echoes are unmistakable, and the story is international.