Pre-Election Battle for Brazil Moves to the Big Screen

  • Carwash film ‘No One is Above the Law’ opens on Thursday
  • Prosecutors are investigating police assistance to filmmakers

This Thursday’s Independence Day in Brazil promises less a show of national unity than yet another demonstration of the country’s divisions, with the release of a blockbuster movie facing fire from critics and under investigation by prosecutors.

“Federal Police - No One is Above The Law” is the tale of the grunt work behind Operation Carwash, the epic graft investigation that landed some of Brazil’s wealthiest businessmen in jail, helped bring down one president, and resulted in the criminal conviction of another. But like the operation itself, the film stands accused of anti-left political bias, misuse of public institutions and mythologizing deeply flawed characters.

’Federal Police - No One is Above The Law’

Source: Downtown Filmes

It’s only the latest of several major Brazilian films over the last two years to feed off the long-running political mayhem in the country. The directors of the two movies “Aquarius” and “Joaquim” used their moments in the spotlight at Cannes and the Berlin Film Festival to protest President Michel Temer’s rise to power. But in recent months, Brazilians less enamored of the left-wing Workers’ Party, or PT, have started flexing their own cultural muscles. “No One is Above the Law,” which ends with former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva being brought in for questioning, follows a prize-winning documentary about a leading conservative thinker and “Real,” the story of Brazil’s painful efforts to tame hyper-inflation.

Read more: Why Brazil’s politics got sent to Carwash again: QuickTake Q&A

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a movie about currency stabilization proved box office kryptonite: “Real” flopped, and will only return about 20 percent to 25 percent of its 8 million reais ($2.5 million) cost according to its producer, Ricardo Rihan. The anonymous backers of the $16 million Operation Carwash thriller expect greater success, though they may have to do without the 30 percent of Brazilian voters who’d like to see Lula back in the presidency next year.

“No One is Above the Law” is yet one more mark on the once-gilded image of Lula, who back in 2009 was the subject of a flattering biopic. This year’s cinematic showdowns serve as a prelude to next October’s elections, when the two groups will square off once more to decide the fate of the nation.

In this moment of heightened political sensibilities, neither left- nor right-wing voters want to support arts they feel are connected to the opposing side, said Andre Miranda, film critic for O Globo newspaper. "Brazil is pretty polarized at the moment," he said.

Under Investigation

In real life, Operation Carwash’s critics argue the prosecutors focus too much on the sins of the PT despite the widespread evidence of generalized corruption. As such, they resent the myth-making of an ongoing police investigation, the adulation of its lead judge, Sergio Moro, and even the title of the film, given the jarring inconsistencies in Brazil’s justice system. 

’Aquarius’ actors protest during the Cannes Film Festival.

Photographer: Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images

Another controversy that is marring the movie’s release is a public prosecutors’ investigation into whether police offered filmmakers inappropriate levels of assistance, including the loan of equipment and cars as well as access to key filming locations. The producers deny the police offered any kind of material assistance; the police say they have responded to prosecutors’ questions "with total transparency."

Paulo Pimenta, a PT congressman who requested the inquiry, also described the anonymity of the film’s financial backers as "an absolute scandal."

Producer Tomislav Blazic said their motivation was simple: business. With so much hype around Operation Carwash, he said, the film is slated to open in 1,000 cinemas nationwide on Thursday’s public holiday, putting it up there with some of the biggest successes of the country’s cinema.

Part Two

Rihan, the producer of the “Real” movie, blamed Brazil’s "extreme-left" cultural commentators for his film’s failure and fears the same outcome may await “No One is Above the Law.”

"What these two films have in common is that they remove people from their comfort zones and challenge their beliefs and myths,” he said. "The Carwash film deconstructs Lula more than the ‘Real’ movie, so those people who identify with the PT and who hold Lula as their big hero will be uncomfortable.”

“No One is Above the Law” ends with a trailer for the next installment, due to be released next year, ahead of October’s elections. Covering the period of President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, it is sure to generate more outrage, though its script has not yet been finalized.

"Brasilia is even more creative than our screenwriters,” Blazic said.

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