Chances are, if you’ve already watched this show, you’re from Brazil or going through a Narcos hangover. I don’t blame you: I’m a combination of both, which is probably what made me give this show a try.
And it was….wow.
O Mecanismo (translated into The Mechanism) is a political drama loosely based off the real life Operation Car Wash, an ongoing investigation that revealed widespread money laundering and corruption involving oil companies, business leaders, and politicians. The show opens in 2003 Curitiba, with detective Marco Ruffo (Selton Mello) chasing down money launderer Roberto Ibrahim (Enrique Díaz). Piecing together shredded papers, Ruffo becomes obsessed with the corruption scheme he describes as “a cancer”. However, when Ruffo is about to catch him, Ibrahim finds a way to escape, and Ruffo ends up losing himself in his own madness. Years later, in 2013, Ruffo’s apprentice, Verena Cardoni (Carol Abras) and her team finally get a lead in the corruption scandal involving Ibrahim, giving the start of “Operation Car Wash”.
A lot has been said about the politics behind The Mechanism and how historically accurate the events portrayed are. However, I think looking at it purely as a history lesson means ignoring what makes The Mechanism such a great show.
For starters, there’s no denying that there’s a lot to cover on a show that’s about one of the largest corruption scandals in Latin America, especially one that still hasn’t reached its conclusion in real life. And yet the show succeeds without requiring previous knowledge, mostly thanks to director José Padilha’s signature style. Padilha, having worked in Narcos, knows how to use narration in a way that both gives the historical context and reveals something about the narrators. Ruffo’s narrations give most of the detail on the scandal, but they’re never devoid of emotion: the constant swearing and use of metaphors reveal just how much this whole investigation consumes and frustrates him. Verena discusses the new developments of the operation while hinting at many things about the detectives themselves. It’s a small thing that has Padilha written all over it, but it’s what allows the show to cover so much in a span of eight episodes without sacrificing its fast pace.
Speaking of pace, The Mechanism is breathtaking. There’s not a moment in which it feels like Operation Car Wash is not at risk. There’s always something about to go wrong, whether it’s evidence that needs to be found, a judicial move that needs to be prevented, or people that need to be stopped. Even when Ibrahim and his partners are arrested, there’s still so much that could go wrong: if the case moves out of state Judge Rigo’s (Otto Jr.) hands and to the Supreme Court, for example, then it will all be lost. Everything that the detectives have worked for is always on the brink of falling apart, no matter how hard they try. Even knowing how it will all turn out based on the real-life events doesn’t help: there’s always the question of what will happen next, always the need to press the “next episode” button as soon as the credits roll.
In the middle of this corruption chaos, detectives Ruffo and Verena, the most fictionalized characters of the show, play a critical role in giving the story a more personal tone. Ruffo is incredibly frustrating, especially in his occasional Deus ex Machina moments, but he is still one of the most compelling and well-developed characters of the show. His obsession drives him into madness, but it never fully takes over his storyline: there’s always his family. Even in moments of intense investigation, his daughter is still seen on screen, keeping him company in his bunker-like room. The show becomes not just a progression of Ruffo’s metaphors from “cancer” to “mechanism”, but of whether Ruffo is able to sustain these two sides of his life. Similarly, Verena always has some aspect of her personal life coming into conflict with her work, whether it’s her loyalty to her mentor, her unstable relationship, or her own health. The Mechanism might be a political drama, but it’s these narratives that give viewers someone to cheer for.
However, if I’m being honest, none of these are the main reason why I watched this show. I watched The Mechanism for the same reason that I watched the 73rd Golden Globe Awards when Wagner Moura (Narcos) was nominated for Best Actor or the 84th Academy Awards when Rio ran for Best Original Song. I watched it because it’s not everyday that a Netflix series based on a Brazilian event is portrayed by Brazilian directors and screenwriters and actors. It’s not every time that I get to hear Selton Mello, the original actor for Ruffo, voicing the character in both the Portuguese and the English audio options. It’s not everywhere that I hear names and cities I’ve known all my life not being mispronounced or see setting details that are terribly familiar—whether it’s a cup of coffee or the architecture of Brasília. It’s not everyday that a show distributed worldwide is undeniably Brazilian, and it’s wild and rare and crazy and beautiful. Despite all the political and economic chaos, watching Brazil make such progress in the film and TV industry is simply exhilarating.
The Mechanism might not portray Brazil’s best moment in history, but it is still ours. And, in a story with few heroes or glory, the biggest success in The Mechanism – or, better yet, O Mecanismo – is the Brazilian voice behind it all.