Although Rio, I Love You is a collaborative project featuring almost a dozen distinctive filmmakers from all over the world, from Fernando Meirelles (City of God) to Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty), it surprisingly coheres into one consistently clichéd love letter to a city, and intended for the most gullible of foreigners. The film’s only real triumph is the seamless stitching together of multiple short stories through a decidedly Brazilian inability to see cinema as something other than an opportunity to both emulate and please “the developed world.” This hygienization of Rio de Janeiro into what at times looks like a soulless Southern California town, and other times like an ersatz Montmartre neighborhood straight out of Amelie, is so scandalous it feels like a spoof of the Cities of Love series, of which this is the third installment.
Whether tracing the misadventures of a happy-go-lucky old homeless woman (Fernanda Montenegro) getting harassed by police, a man (Wagner Moura) quarreling with God as he hang-glides around the Christ the Redeemer statue, or a taxi driver (Michel Melamed) lamenting the end of his marriage to every passenger he picks up, the filmmakers wildly aestheticize Rio, reducing it to the lasting visual tropes of travel advertising, from the Copacabana sidewalk to the sugarloaf mountain. We never learn anything new about the city, except that it’s apparently chock-full of white foreigners, either actors or millionaires from the United States and Australia, for whom Rio is but an open invitation to swim, rock-climb, gawk at women, or photograph cute street kids.
The soundtrack, abundant in generic bossa nova tracks that one might expect to find on a Starbucks compilation CD, adds yet another redundant layer of Rio iconography. The sad thing is that there has already been a film like Rio I Love You, just as guilty of its conceptual equivocations. Directed by Bruno Barreto, it was even titled Bossa Nova, and also featured an inexplicable over-presence of Americans milling around town, either seduced by the exotic spices that Rio promised or the presumed sexual availability of Brazilian women dying to meet gringos off the Internet and bring them to their homes—or, rather, use them to escape the horrors of the real Rio.
In Rio I Love You there are no such women. Instead, they appear as either helplessly paraplegic, not-so-talented ballet dancers, cheerful tramps, stupid gold-diggers, unfaithful flirts, or a collection of sexy brown feet traversing across Copacabana Beach. In fact, in one sequence from Meirelles’s A Musa, a sand sculptor played by Vincent Cassel lusts over a pair of tanned Brazilian legs, with the camera refusing to show her head. When he realizes the pair of hot female legs was already taken by a local man, he gets so mad he destroys his entire sculptural work at the beach. It’s a telling moment because it’s the only time that the film, albeit unwittingly, conveys the abysmal distance between the image of the city and its lived experience.