American viewers watching Petra Costa’s “The Edge of Democracy” — an angry, intimate, and haunting portrait of Brazil’s recent slide back into the open jaws of dictatorship — might find it morbidly fitting that the nation’s capital is one hour ahead of Washington D.C.; for all the specificity of Costa’s doc, her film can’t help but feel like a preview of what might be coming for us.
To a certain extent, that seems to have been Costa’s intention, and we her target audience. There’s a reason why her plaintive and poetic narration is delivered in English, and why her broad overview of Brazil’s political scandals is pitched at viewers who are learning about them for the first time. This is a movie that seems as if it was always meant to be exported — a cautionary tale that was sold to Netflix so that it could reach the people who most needed to see it.
On the other hand, there’s always a chance that “The Edge of Democracy” just evolved that way over the course of its long and harrowing gestation, as Costa sometimes loses her grip on the urgency of this material when trying to thread the needle between personal history and political inertia. At what point does a story about one failing democracy become a story about all failing democracies? Perhaps there’s no way of knowing until it’s already too late.
Costa, whose previous work (“Elena,” “Undertow Eyes”) has already established her mournful voiceover as something of a signature, offers a characteristically rhapsodic observation towards the beginning of her latest and most vital film: “Brazilian democracy and I are the same age,” she says, alluding to the end of the country’s military rule in 1985, “and I thought in our thirties we’d be on solid ground.”
Her sadness over that misapprehension is always palpable, even if it can be hard to parse the more intricate details of her relationship with her homeland, or the role that her family has played in a country that’s later described as “a republic of families.” Judging from a few instances of latent guilt and an unsatisfying aside about her grandfather’s corporation, it would seem that Costa descends from some kind of privilege and power. Nevertheless, her parents were revolutionaries of the worker’s party, and the remarkable access she displays here is owed more to her tenacity as a documentary filmmaker than anything else.
Far more than a reductive summary of recent events, “The Edge of Democracy” wastes no time in cutting to the heart of the matter; the movie’s very first scene is set inside the apartment of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on the night of April 7, 2018, mere hours before he turned himself to the authorities on specious charges of money laundering and corruption. This will be the story of how “Lula” went from being one of the most popular leaders in the world to being a political prisoner in the span of a decade, and it will sometimes only make sense in the most general of terms.
Costa’s camera is right over the garrulous folk hero’s shoulder, and close enough to feel his embrace. She clearly has love in her heart for this man who lifted an entire country up by its bootstraps only to be flattened under its heel, and so it’s strange — in such a first-person film — that she works so hard to mute her feelings. More pained than partisan, and happy to let its right-wing antagonists damn themselves, Costa’s documentary can be paralyzed by its selective refusal to emphasize individual people over the more abstract powers that ultimately shape their fates. Helplessness is the only consistent feeling that holds “The Edge of Democracy” together. Helplessness, and the hope that it holds in its gripped fist.
“I fear democracy was nothing but a short-lived dream,” Costa intones as she cross-cuts between stunning archival footage of Lula’s rise, and washed out home video of her own childhood. She’s hesitant to make herself too much of a proxy for her country, or to stake out a clear place for herself in this story (it’s welcome but disorienting whenever Costa’s face pops up on screen), but the physicality of her presence comes to serve as a rebuke to a “democracy that was founded on forgetting” a mess of war crimes and generations of violence. The body always remembers. It’s also a vessel for hope, even for someone with an internalized understanding that freedom and tyranny can be cyclical.
Maybe that’s why Costa sounds so flat and disengaged when she reflects on the compromises that Lula made with Brazil’s powerful businessmen, but her film discovers its purpose after Dilma Rousseff — the first woman to hold the Brazilian presidency — is narrowly re-elected in 2014. That’s when “The Edge of Democracy” shifts into political thriller territory (complete with disturbingly serene drone shots of the empty-looking capitol buildings, and stolen audio recordings that are presented on screen with the illicitness of the Watergate tapes). It’s also when the film’s personal and political elements mesh together, as Costa backs into a thought that can bind a country together or tear it apart: Democracy is a shared idea that can only survive for as long as people believe in it. When politicians stop abiding by it, the people will stop believing in it, and when people stop believing in it, the idea itself will cease to exist.
And so “The Edge of Democracy” takes a terrifying turn when right-wing factions begin to question the legitimacy of Rousseff’s re-election, and use the media to sow the seeds of discord. In one of the film’s most effective moments, Costa arranges a stack of magazine covers to provide a galling chronological account of how the tail wagged the dog and forced a narrative of disgrace on Rousseff’s administration.
Costa manages to spend a ton of time on the so-called “Operation Car Wash” without actually clarifying how she feels about Rousseff’s flaws or identifying what the actual merits of the scandal might have been, but — frustrating as it can be to watch — the truth isn’t the point, and the point isn’t the truth. In much the same way as the Trump administration has laid down enough cover fire to blind their most dedicated partisans to the facts, Rousseff’s enemies (including Jair Bolsonaro, who Costa interviews when the fascistic current president is still just an animated and arrogant political upstart) spin a yarn that’s big enough to cover the entire country in bullshit and convince the masses to root against their own future.
Costa tends to skirt over the role that “good old days” racism played in the far-right’s surge to power (ditto the fundamental need for campaign finance reform), and the use of easily discernible songs from recent movie scores like “The Tree of Life” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” give some of the most pivotal moments an odd prefab quality, but her film surges with the immediacy required to relocate its point. It’s in the image of a woman at a protest who’s surrounded by a crush of male bodies, or the eerie quiet of the presidential residence as Oscar Niemeyer’s wide-open architectural masterpiece waits expectantly for whomever has the nerve to make it their home. And it’s in the furious growl of Lula’s cancer-stricken voice as he addresses his followers one last time before going to jail, the old man bellowing about the next round of their collective fight.
For Brazil, the future is now, and it’s very scary. For America, teetering on “The Edge of Democracy,” there may still be a window of time to restore some balance. But, if nothing else, Costa’s film makes clear that even the most beautiful dreams aren’t necessarily shared, and that some people losing sight of reality is all it takes for the rest of us to wake up screaming.
“The Edge of Democracy” will be available to stream on Netflix on Wednesday, June 19.