What I am Watching: The Mechanism (Netflix’s Brazilian political drama) and La Casa de Papel (a Spanish heist show).

When news hit that Netflix would produce a series based on the Brazilian CarWash (Lava Jato) corruption probe, I was not very interested at all. Here in Brazil, I have lived through the investigations, which have just included the arrest of former President Lula as another chapter in its story. So, why would I want to see it all again?

Then a few things piqued my interest.

One, the campaign by Brazil’s leftists block to cancel Netflix for airing the show. They were happy to post their cancellation notices on Twitter and take a stand against the show. When a people boycott a show, it is usually the best promotion. I had to check out what the fuss was about.

Two, former president, Dilma demonstrated her outrage at Netflix for airing the show. She said that Netflix “didn’t know where they were sticking their nose.” and that they “couldn’t make political campaigns”. She was especially angered by the phrase, “We need to stop the bleeding,” which in the show is attributed to a character who represents her political ally, ex-president Lula. In real life, the phrase was said by someone she considers a political opponent.

Padilla, (the show’s creator) responded by saying that if she knew how to read, we wouldn’t have this problem. He is referencing the disclaimer at the start of each show which states that The Mechanism is a work of fiction and drama based on actual events. Making an ex-president angry to the point where she feels the need to threaten Netflix will automatically catch my attention. Much like the Twitter-campaign people, Dilma was doing more free promotion.

Last on my list of reasons why I decided to watch the show were statements from ex-President Lula of the PT (Worker’s Party). Before he was jailed on April 7th of 2018, he threatened to sue Netflix for spreading more lies about his political party, which has been mired in corruption scandals for years now. Anything that gets him on his moral high horse and threatening to sue people will definitely have me sold.

So with all that as a springboard, I sat down to watch the show.

My verdict – The Mechanism is not amazing but it is somewhat unevenly entertaining.

The series falters mostly because of what Padilla tried to do – make a fiction out of facts. And I don’t say this for the reasons Lula and Dilma (and their followers) allude to but because we flip back and forth from some semi-hard hitting cop show fodder to semi-soap opera-ish “yawn moments”. The show never seems to find its groove because it is trying to play both sides of the entertainment aisle.

The positives are most definitely the procedural parts of the show. Seeing how the justice (or injustice) system works in a country as corrupt as Brazil is eye-opening. The problem, dramatically-speaking, is that although there are liberties taken with the facts the show tries to remain grounded in reality. This means that the bad guys aren’t really as much of a threat who connive their way out of trouble like in Padilla’s masterpieces, Elite Troup 1 and 2, but rather, a bunch of rich elites who try not to shit their pants as the police noose tightens around them. The action also becomes quite anti-climatic given how most of us know how many of the investigations will play out. Perhaps a foreign audience will have this suspense advantage over those of us who have kept up with the real-world events.

Padilla is unable to give us an angle from the inside which is unique enough to make any of the criminal´s fate feel more like a justified pay off for their deeds. He also doesn´t give us the criminal´s outlook. While some were in it just for the money, others believed they had some moral ground to stand on when sacking state-run companies and receiving bribes from powerful businessmen. Spending some time to explore the “bad guy’s” motivations always makes for a good counter-point to the “good guy’s” crusades.

Looking at it from a big-picture point of view, though, the show’s exploration of the road that Lava-Jato took to arrive at a full-blown investigation, involving the arrest of top executives, is fun to watch. It’s great to see each one of them being carted away even as they do their best to burn the evidence. Padilla also makes it clear that it was not just the PT government that was involved in the corruption scheme, but everyone in Brasilia (Brazil’s capital). Each political party is trying to simply wash their hands of the matter by making the other party look worse in a case of who looks “less” dirty.

As I had alluded to earlier, the show hits its biggest road bumps when it tries to show the ordinary lives of the police officers involved in the investigation. These characters are pretty boring and any attempt to create drama is a grade level above a Brazilian soap opera – which, for what it’s worth, is usually better produced than an American or even a Mexican one.

The lead cop on the case, Marco Ruffo, (overplayed by Selton Mello) talks and does voice-over narration as if he were a worn out Batman. If this is Padilla’s attempt to give us a gritty film noir feel, he fails miserably. He gets an A for effort, though as Mello is your stereotypical lone cop whose marriage is falling apart and whose obsession with arresting all the “bad people” disrupts his own mental health.

Another lead cop, Verena Cardoni, (played well by Caroline Abas) is certainly tenacious but she also has the Batman syndrome with her voice-over narration of some episodes. We get it, Padilla, these cops are hard asses, but no need to lower all their tones to bass level 10.

She at least has a bit more to do when she is off-duty. She is an off-and-on relationship with someone from Public Ministry office, which sometimes affects her investigations – the guy is a dick. She also runs into a medical issue towards the end of the season, which I didn’t quite see the need for.

Everyone in the series is pretty one-dimensional – including the Otto Jr. who plays Judge Rigo who represents the real-life Judge Moro. For those that do not know, Judge Moro is a Federal judge who has been mostly in charge of the prosecution in the Car Wash operation. He is heralded as a hero to many in Brazil for his arrest of many high profile people, including most recently, the very popular ex-president Lula.

Although Padilla has never made his political stances very secret, he makes his political bias shine too bright with this character who comes off as a squeaky clean Superman-type hero. There are a few scenes where they hint at what the weight of what he is attempting to do (bring down the biggest government corruption scheme in Brazilian history) means to him, but they are sparse. Judge Rigo seems to only be there for the ride, without contributing much beyond a pen stroke on a warrant to further the investigation.

Fortunately, Padilla knows pacing and he hired a crew who match his style. The show never lingers too long on its attempt to make us care for these people on a personal level, which I would have liked for him to do but will accept only because I am not forced to stick with those scenes for very long.

The story is how the corruption scandal started small and got huge. That story is told as well as it can be told considering the millions of pages of text that have already been written about it – and the fact we are now still living through it.

I doubt this show would interest anyone who isn’t keyed into Brazilian politics, and sadly the show didn’t allow for the scope of the size of the corruption scandal to be truly explored – perhaps that is next season.  As it stands, this first season feels like a miniature house of cards, when in fact, many incidents in the real-life Lava Jato case make House of Cards seem minuscule.

So, I say to all the leftists, and to Dilma, and to Lula, “don’t lose your marbles.” This show plays for entertainment while sprinkling in bits of headline stories. I wish it had been more hard-hitting, but instead, it’s nothing more than a semi-interesting cop show with an ending we have yet to reach in the real world. I recomment it to anyone who wants the short story, but real life trumps fiction on this one.

La Casa de Papel  (Money Heist)

 

I had a few people tell me about this Spanish drama and how good it was, so since I was in the crime-busting (or doing) vibe, I decided to give it a go.

This show is about a group of criminals who come together under the tutelage of a “heist-master”, who calls himself The Professor, in order to pull off the biggest heist in history. Their plan is to rob the Royal Mint of Spain in the order of 2.4 Billion Euros. I won’t tell you how they plan to do this, as it will spoil the fun of a show filled with surprise turns.

What was supposed to be me just checking out the show, turned into me burning through the entire first season and then searching desperately for the second-season, which Netflix hadn’t made available at the time (it’s there now).

(By the way, the original airing of the show on Spanish television was in two parts with nine 70-minute episodes to start and 6 more to end. When Netflix acquired the rights they edited each episode to span 13 40-50 minute episodes for a first season and 9 episodes of similar length for a season two.)

La Casa de Papel moves at a neck-break speed. Unlike in The Mechanism, this show doesn’t waste its time trying to humanize the characters by adding superfluous domestic disputes into the story or adding unnecessary backstory dialogue. It follows one of the golden rules of good drama, “show, don’t tell.” We learn about our heisters through their actions, decisions, mistakes and concerns. Moreover, our bandits don’t come off as completely “super-hero-like” cartoony in an “Ocean’s Eleven” type of way. Not that I don’t enjoy those types of heist movies too, but it was great to see them fail and succeed in equal measure throughout the series run.

The true stand out of the show for me was the lead inspector, Raquel, who was leading the charge to catch the bandits. She was played by Itziar Ituño with absolute grit mixed with just the right amount of lack of assurance. She reminded me a lot of Gillian Anderson from the early seasons of The X Files where she played Scully as someone stuck in a man´s world (and her vulnerability showed), but also as someone tough enough to accomplish her goals in her own way. Ituño´s Raquel is certainly not someone I would ever want to cross, but she is also someone who I would love to sit and have a coffee with, as heist-master, The Professor, immediately discovers.

La Casa de Papel is binge-watching certified. It plays out like one long movie, so if the first or second episode doesn´t grab your attention, chances are that this show might not be for you. For those who like a great caper, interesting characters, a million twists, and great cinematography (some of the action and timed sequences are on par with Hollywood offerings) then this show is for you. My only criticism involves some character motivations at the end, but it wasn´t anything that ruined the series for me. This show here is a keeper.

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If you haven’t already seen Black Panther, read my review by clicking here.

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One Response to What I am Watching: The Mechanism (Netflix’s Brazilian political drama) and La Casa de Papel (a Spanish heist show).

  1. Pingback: What I am Reading: “The Glass Castle” – a story of an unconventional family and the love that binds. | Brazusa's Blog

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