'The Mechanism': TV Review

The voiceovers hurt, but the story is intriguing.
3/23/2018

Netflix's ambitious Brazilan series from 'Narcos' creator Jose Padilha fights to get out from under the weight of its massive true-life story.

Netflix has always had a soft spot for the success of Brazilian director Jose Padilha's Narcos, because it set in motion one of the streamer's ideals: international production and content that could be made and exported all over the world, but was essentially homegrown.

It's no wonder they returned to the prolific writer and director (7 Days in Entebbe, RoboCop) for the sprawling, eight-episode series The Mechanism, about massive institutional corruption in Brazil's government, industry and, effectively, endless interwoven connections on both sides of the law. Based on not only a true story but an ongoing corruption case that is still rattling the country (and based on the book Lava Jato by Vladimir Netto that documented the scandal), the series is written by Elena Soarez and Sofia Maldonado and directed by Padilha, Marcos Prada and Felipe Prado.

In many ways, The Mechanism is a work in progress — the story covered in the eight-episode season already had been wrapped when even more fallout, reaching all the way to the top of Brazilian politics, blew up: Brazil's former president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, was found guilty of corruption and money laundering and sentenced to 10 years in prison; his successor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached and her successor, Michel Temer, in turn is being investigated for corruption and obstruction of justice.

So The Mechanism, which drops Friday but hasn't been renewed for a second season, of course, has a lot of hot-mess material to mine going forward if Netflix wants to (and Padilha is free to do it).

Netflix sent the first three episodes for review, and it's clear early on that one of the biggest obstacles for Padilha and Soarez as they fashioned the pilot was how in the world they were going to take a convoluted story (still ongoing five years after it broke) that started as something called Operation Car Wash, about a money laundering scheme set at a gas station, and follow it as it spirals out and nabs countless political, business and judicial figures in its path.

Stories of deep-seated corruption aren't easy to tell because there's so much minutiae — bank records, receipts, little tips that start out meaning nothing but connect months or years later. So The Mechanism is up front about its depiction being "loosely based" on actual events, with Padilha and Soarez creating a trio of fictional characters that kick-start the story.

The first is detective Marco Ruffo (Selton Mello), who ostensibly breaks the beginnings of the case after years of chasing down a money launderer, Roberto Ibrahim (Enrigue Diaz), and going through his trash, piecing together shredded documents.

When the staggering weight of the corruption case doesn't stick to Ibrahim, Ruffo's partner, detective Verena Cardoni (Caroline Abras), picks it up years later. The trio of Mello, Diaz and Abras is compelling, with Diaz bringing particular nuance to Ibrahim, but it's clear from the start that The Mechanism can't get out from the burden of its ambitions without a significant amount of voiceover narration.

Depending on your tolerance for exposition and snarky commentary on events in the plot, this device might sap you. On the plus side, by the third episode, The Mechanism needs significantly voiceover; but the damage is done in the first two, which are larded with narration from both the Ruffo and the Verena characters, sometimes together.

Some of that dialogue is philosophically interesting — Ruffo's frustration with how a working cop can't make a decent living while everybody else seems to be tapping into Brazil's rampant corruption and getting rich — but there are too many times in the first two episodes where the voiceovers veer into cliches and otherwise succumb to the sheer volume of the talking (which also makes it more complicated to read the subtitles).

A little patience is rewarded by the third episode, however, as the narrative ambition of The Mechanism gets a little freedom to tell its story. Various cities in Brazil (Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba, Brasilia) come to life in the cinematography of the series as does the country's division of wealth, best exemplified visually by the starkly beautiful modernist homes of the rich and the poorer confines of someone like Ruffo.

It will be interesting to see how The Mechanism grows in future episodes, especially knowing that there's so much corruption and intrigue to get to before the eight episodes are told. Not to mention how much great material Padilha will have to work with going forward, as Brazil's corruption fallout shows no sign of abating in every sector of the country.

Cast: Selton Mello, Caroline Abras, Enrique Diaz, Lee Taylor, Antonio Saboia, Jonathan Haagensen, Alessandra Colasanti, Leonardo Medeiros, Otto Jr., Susana Ribeiro
Created by: Jose Padilha and Elena Soarez
Written by: Elena Soarez, Jose Padilha, Sofia Maldonado
Directed by: Jose Padilha, Marcos Prado, Felipe Prado
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)