Netflix's 'O Mecanismo' Takes on Brazil's Carwash Scandal

(Bloomberg View) -- No sooner did Brazil's huge Carwash scandal and investigation come into the public eye in 2014 than it began to inspire a respectable dramatic oeuvre, including a soap opera and a stage play, a crowd-funded documentary, a feature film and most recently, an entire series streamed to more than 190 countries.

What else to expect from what may be the largest graft scheme in modern history? Brazilians have also taken some rightful pride in the historic cleanup that has chased financial crooks from palaces to tax havens, across the equator and into four continents.

Yet whether Brazil's talented storytellers can do for its legal avengers what they have done for the country's thugs and desperados, in gritty feature films such as "Pixote," "City of God" and "Elite Squad," is an open question. If anyone could, it's filmmaker Jose Padilha, who has directed and produced some of the region's finest crime dramas, including "Elite Squad," about rogue cops and drug lords, and "Narcos," on former alpha Colombian trafficker Pablo Escobar. Unfortunately, Netflix's "O Mecanismo" (The Mechanism), Padilha's latest, takes the canon to vexing new territory.

Part of the problem is the density of detail in a case that dives into overlapping layers of government authorities, political parties, corporate brands and police, auditing and financial oversight institutions. Perhaps to get uninitiated viewers up to speed, Padilha packs much of this eight-episode series with voiceover by an off-camera narrator, telling the story instead of showing it.

Another problem is the extra dose of poetic license that Padilha uses to quicken the pace. Although "inspired by real events," "O Mecanismo" changes names, scrambles dates and embellishes characters, starting with the bipolar ex-cop who secretly drives the investigation from his garage, like a deus ex machina.

That's fair enough for the land that spun soaps into a prime-time industry. The trouble is, Padilha also describes "O Mecanismo" as "commentary" on Brazil's fractious political moment, and so exposes it to judgement by that more exacting metric.

The series, thankfully, is no sop to the partisan caviling that has overwhelmed Brazil ever since the political implosion and impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, a protege of former Workers' Party legend, and now convicted corruption felon, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. He takes pains to finger graft as a "mechanism" with many cogs and "no ideology," as the grizzled cop Marco Rufo repeats throughout the drama.

Some of the most withering takes are reserved not for Lula and his leftist cohort but the center-right opposition standard-bearer (a thinly disguised version of former social democratic presidential hopeful Aecio Neves), who is painted as a venal opportunist. Not even Brazil's generally praiseworthy Supreme Court — which lately has come under scrutiny for rulings said to indulge political higher-ups — escapes Padilha's glare. "We're free! It’s gone to the Supreme (Court)!" a jailed oil mogul revels to his cellmates upon hearing that the high court has taken over the corruption case from the notoriously harsh lower court.

Padilha's one false step is a scene in which his Lula stand-in, who goes by Higino in the series, grumbles to his attorney about the need to stop the corruption investigation from "bleeding out" political allies. In fact, that's a verbatim quote from a rival camp: an aide to sitting President Michel Temer, who replaced Rousseff and was branded a coup-monger ever since. The swap provoked a firestorm on social media and calls to cancel Netflix. "Fake news!" cried Rousseff.

That blowup says a lot about Brazil's moment that you won't see on the big screen. If the Carwash case has proved anything, it's that corruption carries no flags and wears no uniform. That much became clear in the confessions of Joesley Batista, the tainted meatpacker turned informer whose company admitted to bribing 1,829 politicians from 28 parties. The point comes across clearly in Padilha's tale, as in many others of the genre. The mystery is how political sectarianism still flourishes despite such criminal ecumenicalism.

Philosopher Francisco Bosco, former head of the national arts foundation Funarte, recently traced the disconnect to a cultural shift, when Brazilians left behind their reputation for cordiality and fluid coexistence — whether on the football pitch, the beach or carnival grounds — for the more brittle politics of identity.

Lula's fall into disgrace and the Rousseff impeachment — or coup d'etat, pick your flag — hastened the transition, cleaving Brazil into warring camps. Now, and despite Carwash, confrontation trumps cordiality, and ideology obscures commonality.

The danger is that political quarrels devolve into violence. This week, Lula's presidential campaign bus convoy was hit by gunshots in southern Brazil, and Supreme Court justice Edson Fachin reported receiving threatening messages.

To overcome "the mechanism" and return to the rule of law, Brazilians need to find not just heroic investigators but new common cause. That's a tale Brazil's prodigious storytellers have yet to capture.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

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