How do you take a complex, wide-reaching scandal involving literally hundreds of people in a layered corruption scheme and make it into a coherent, dramatically satisfying eight-episode series? How do you tell a story that conveys the complexity of its various moving parts while managing not to overwhelm audiences with detail after detail of excruciating minutiae? And how do you manage to do all of that while also raising the stakes and creating the kind of human connection to stories that encourages binge-watching? In The Mechanism, the controversial new Netflix original from the mind of Narcos creator Jose Padilha, the answer is simple: you whittle it down. You make it personal.
It’s impossible to ignore the series’s stranger-than-fiction origins, an impossibly complicated corruption scandal going all the way to the top of Brazil’s political hierarchy, resulting in a massive fallout leading to the imprisonment of a former president and an impeachment of his successor (interestingly, much of The Mechanism was already in production while the real-life drama that inspired it was still escalating, and consequently, the series wasn’t able to include some of its more dramatic ripple effects). That said, The Mechanism is very careful to put a big, bold-letter disclaimer at the start of every episode: this show is “loosely based” on real-life events, and elements have been heightened and altered for dramatic effect. Names of people (and, most dramatically, the company at the very center of the messy drama) have been changed in order to draw a clear line between fact and fiction, and as a way to remind audiences that this isn’t a docuseries.
What The Mechanism does really well is draw audiences in by creating a pathway into this highly involved story through the point-of-view characters of detectives Marco Ruffo (Selton Mello) and Verena Cardoni (Caroline Abras), who kickstart the investigation that breaks open one of Latin America’s largest political scandals. It’s a clever way of leading audiences into the story, as Ruffo brings us into this web of deception through a personal connection: his several-year struggle to catch a money launderer collides with his personal life when his family’s lives are directly threatened, leading him to take violent action. Cardoni, his partner, picks up his investigation after he is placed on leave. The hand-off from Ruffo to Cardoni is an interesting subversion of conventional storytelling tropes, and our first indication as an audience of how this story is going to gradually open up and involve more and more players.
I will confess that, after witnessing its disastrous use in Argentina’s train-wreck Netflix soap-opera Edha, I groaned audibly when the series kicked off with a voice-over narration. It struck me as an overused, hackneyed device that pointed to a different series than The Mechanism turned out to be, with a lot of hard-boiled detective clichés and pseudo philosophical posturing, with a few snarky lines thrown in for good measure. However, that impression washed away within the first few minutes, as I realized that such a device was necessary for a series like this: not only does it allow for the “information dump” that is inherently required when an audience is plunged into a story of this scope, but it also allows for that personal connection that gets us invested in the people behind this story (even if, in this case, some of those people are fictional characters created for the sole purpose of providing a point of view into a larger plot). The alternating of voice-over from Ruffo to Cardoni was somewhat jarring at first, but I grew to enjoy it as an interesting and unconventional method of coloring around the margins of the sprawling narrative.
One of my favorite things about The Mechanism, and something I noticed as consistently solid through the course of its eight episodes, was the look of it. Both the production design and the cinematography are fittingly gritty and hyper-realistic, used to great effect in presenting the contrasting sides of Brazil’s seedy underground and its well-scrubbed high-life glamorous corrupt bureaucratic side. The framing is artful and efficient throughout, even if it doesn’t take any extra steps to provide any sort of impressionistic look at characters’ internal lives. And that’s fine. This is not that type of show.
There’s been a large debate surrounding The Mechanism and the extent to which art can responsibly represent real life political dramas, and whether it is exploitative for a multi billion dollar corporation like Netflix to produce such a piece of art. I am not particularly interested in that debate. The Mechanism’s strengths lies in its cast, which is uniformly solid throughout, and in its employment of cinematic elements to create a visceral, hard-hitting, human story out of something that could’ve easily come across as a bunch of numbers and facts being spouted off stiffly and inelegantly. This show manages to bring us into a sprawling, high-stakes narrative without sacrificing its heart or visceral dramatic nature. That’s much more than you can ask of most shows.
The Mechanism is currently streaming on Netflix. It is in Portuguese, but there are English subtitles (and dubbing) available.