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Netflix’s The Edge of Democracy charts the slippery slope from democracy to authoritarian rule

It’s also a horror movie.

A crowd in Brazil in The Edge of Democracy.
A crowd in Brazil in The Edge of Democracy.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every week, new original films debut on Netflix and other streaming services, often to much less fanfare than their big-screen counterparts. Cinemastream is Vox’s series highlighting the most notable of these premieres, in an ongoing effort to keep interesting and easily accessible new films on your radar.

The Edge of Democracy

The premise: Taking a sweeping but personal view of contemporary Brazilian politics, Petra Costa shows what it looks like for a country to finally embrace democracy after years of military dictatorship — and then squander its progress in a move back toward authoritarianism.

What it’s about: Filmmaker Petra Costa grew up in a politically involved family in Brazil, and that’s her starting point for The Edge of Democracy, in which she traces recent developments in Brazilian politics and shows how the country moved so quickly from a fledgling democracy toward far-right authoritarianism.

If you live in America and think that doesn’t sound very relevant to your own life — think again. The story of Brazil’s slide toward takeover by the far right has echoes both in history and in our own time, and resonates with movements in both Europe and the US.

Costa uses footage she’s shot along with archival and news footage going back to her parents’ days as activists in the 1980s to methodically lay out how her country arrived at its tumultuous present, paying particular attention to the careers of former presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (called Lula by Brazilians) and Dilma Rousseff, the first female president of Brazil. Lula is currently in prison and Rousseff was impeached in 2016, both for reasons that Costa suggests have been inflated by their political enemies. The country’s current president, Jair Bolsonaro, is an ultra-conservative.

The Edge of Democracy is not an impartial piece of journalistic filmmaking; indeed, Costa makes no pretensions to objectivity. She weaves in her own family’s story — her parents opposed military dictatorship in the ’80s, and were jailed as a result — and the film takes on the quality of a lament.

The questions Costa asks at the end of The Edge of Democracy, about whether it’s possible for a country on the brink to return to peace and democracy, are difficult ones. But they’re worth considering. While the film often feels like a slow-motion real-world horror story, it’s not without hope. For Brazil, liberty once existed. Can it exist again? And what does that mean for the rest of the world?

Critical reception: The Edge of Democracy has a score of 83 on Metacritic. In his review for Variety, Guy Lodge writes that “for viewers who haven’t kept up with the rough-and-tumble of recent Brazilian politics, The Edge of Democracy offers an unavoidably dense but enlightening recap.”

How to watch it: The Edge of Democracy is streaming on Netflix.

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