Review: ‘Rio, I Love You’ is a (mostly) agreeable fantasy

There’s a scene about two-thirds of the way into Rio, I Love You in which a guy soars above the city on a hang glider, and as he flies by the Christ the Redeemer statue he suddenly starts to yell at the city’s most iconic landmark.

“Your open arms are a lie. This city is a lie! Have you been down there? […] The police is killing people, when it rains it’s a mess, everybody dies. Children don’t have schools. But it’s better to see it from up here, isn’t it?”

Rio, I Love You weaves together 10 short films; the one above is a collaboration between Wagner Montes and José Padilha, the actor/director duo behind the controversial Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite) favela crime thrillers and Netflix’s Pablo Escobar saga Narcos. But the grittiness of the work they’re best known for, and the indignities the scene alludes to, are nowhere to be seen in Rio, I Love You. In fact, the scene seems more like a nod-and-wink to Brazilian audiences (not to mention social justice activists): “Yeah, we know, Rio’s got problems, but that’s not what this movie’s about — give us a break, okay?”

A lot of Brazilians didn’t, and the film — the third entry in the Cities of Love Series after Paris, je t’aime (2006) and New York, I Love You (2008) — didn’t get much love from audiences or critics in the country it aimed to celebrate. For those who’ve glimpsed the city’s dark side, it can be hard to swallow the film’s general view of Rio as a magical globalized playground where most everyone is middle class or above, and even the poor seem to have a grand old time of it.

Having read several lukewarm or downright negative Brazilian reviews, I approached the film with low expectations and bearing in my mind that there’s no realness to it. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying it, for the most part.

Like most short film anthologies, Rio, I Love You is uneven. The best segment is by City of God (Cidade Deus) director Fernando Meirelles, who uses imaginative sound editing as well as bird’s-eye view and low-angle shots of passerby on the iconic sidewalks of Copacabana to artful, somewhat abstract effect.

Animator Carlos Saldanha (Rio) shows he can handle live action deftly, blending dance with light and shadow effects in a segment where a couple (Rodrigo Santoro and Bruna Linzmeyer) discuss their rocky relationship while performing a pas de deux at the Municipal Theatre. John Turturro directs and co-stars with Vanessa Paradis in a lovely French New Wave homage, and the segment where Brazilian character actor Tonico Pereira leads a gaggle of dancing vampires is so wacky it’s hard not to enjoy.

Review: 'Rio, I Love You' is a (mostly) agreeable fantasyThe darker episodes are hit-and-miss. The one where a wealthy American architect (Basil Hoffman) decides to off his awful younger wife (Emily Mortimer) doesn’t quite nail the dark humor it goes for. On the other hand, the segment in which a guilt-ridden former boxing star (Land Vieira) maimed in a drunk driving accident decides to get back into the ring to raise money for his wheelchair-bound wife (Laura Neiva) was intriguing enough to leave me wanting more.

Review: 'Rio, I Love You' is a (mostly) agreeable fantasyThe film really stumbles when it tries to be cutesy or whimsical. Fernanda Montenegro’s immense acting talent’s not enough to redeem a cliched segment about an elderly lady who claims she’s living on the streets by choice — you know, so she can be free. It’s amusing to see Harvey Keitel playing against type as an unnamed American actor who swears he was not in Goodfellas and tries to help an exceedingly precious street kid (Cauã Antunes), but the end result is too corny. And there’s an even more cringe-worthy segment involving singer Bebel Gilberto as a fairy and the absurdity of two guys climbing Sugarloaf Mountain with their bare hands.

Review: 'Rio, I Love You' is a (mostly) agreeable fantasyAs a PR pitch for the city and an antidote for all the bad news coming out of Brazil lately, the film works wonders. It honors the anything-goes carioca spirit, boasts some of the most breathtaking Rio views ever seen onscreen, and while the soundtrack features plenty of bossa nova, it avoids predictable standards and includes two new Gilberto Gil songs.

The fact that Rio, I Love You includes lesser-known locations such as Tijuca Forest, the Municipal Theatre and the Santa Teresa neighborhood is also commendable, but its neglect of favela culture and the city’s Afro-Brazilian population is not. At any rate, the film will make you miss Rio if you’ve ever been there, and if you haven’t it’ll make you wish you had. Just don’t expect to find supernatural beings or impossibly cute street urchins when you get there.

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Written by Sergio Barreto

Brazilian-American editor, web developer and (occasional) event promoter. As founder and content director for this site, I keep an eye on what's wrong with Brazil, but what really makes my heart beat faster is sharing the exciting things happening in Brazilian tech, music, film, and other creative industries.

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