Of all the sloppy descriptions in film criticism, "visceral" may be the most misleading. It's a frequent synonym for "loud," not to mention "flashy," "punishing," or "gory." What it almost never means is instinctive, earthy, and intestinal, so forthright it grabs you. Except, that is, when we're talking about Fernando Meirelles.
The Brazilian director's latest, "360," now available on VOD ahead of its theatrical release on August 3, is his third feature since he burst onto the international scene with "City of God" (2002), and in rare moments it achieves what the word denotes. There is, fleetingly, an affecting beauty to the camerawork, including swooning, dusky shots of a Europe where the modern and the traditional are increasingly at war; the sultry, bluesy music is first-rate. I wish I had spent the $9.99 it costs to rent the film buying a copy of the soundtrack.
The global, episodic structure of "360," which is based loosely on "La Ronde," will be familiar to anyone who's seen "Babel," but consider this just one more piece of evidence that such stories generally work better in theory than in practice. The film constructs variations on a very obvious theme — which, if you have to state it as explicitly as "360" does, is less theme than thought experiment — and despite intricate pans and split screens in lieu of editing, nicely weaving together multiple threads in a single frame, the film comes off contrived and calculated. Are strangers ever really this intimate? Are intimates even this intimate? Striving for realism, the film gins up forced randomness — you can practically feel screenwriter Peter Morgan moving the characters around like so many pawns.
What's most disheartening is that "360" contains one of my favorite scenes so far this year, a brief encounter between Rachel Weisz's married Londoner and a sexy younger man. For the second time in recent memory (the other being "The Deep Blue Sea"), Weisz jumps in with startling abandon, racing in minutes through resistance, eroticism, and intense regret. This is where the real movie is: when she offers her paramour help with money, and he tells her he's in it for love, I frankly ached to see more of how it began, developed, became so unexpectedly sad. But that is, as they say, another story.
Meirelles seems temperamentally better suited to the hot colors of the favela, the flash of the teeming market, because they call out for the aesthetic gutsiness that made his early style so distinctive. I remember, seeing "City of God" for the first time, my amazement at its ferocity. There's not a still moment in it; even the brilliantly composed chicken chase that opens the film merits a frenetic, breakneck pacing. The movie so smartly used technique to paper over its narrative jaggedness that I didn't really notice, or care — indeed, its freshness remains such that I can only describe the film in terms of sport, like a masterful exchange in tennis, mixing ruthless power with nervy spin.
I can forgive the blender-pulse aspect of "City of God" because it's so well suited to the psychic ground he's trying to cover. It is, after all, a film about the dangerous shifting of alliances within and among rival Rio gangs. The same holds for my personal favorite of his films, 2005's "The Constant Gardener," which is also, all due respect to the recent remake of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," the best John le Carré adaptation I know. Climate turns out to be Meirelles' favored subject: within its tale of a British diplomat (Joseph Fiennes) and his activist wife (a remarkable Weisz) becoming embroiled in a corporate conspiracy, he marks the difference between postcolonial callousness and anti-imperial bravery with weather, of all things. His London is a gray, cruel, dreary place, his Kenya bright, dusty, and alive in a way Britain could never be.
But the visceral can only take you so far, even when accomplished with Meirelles' efficiency. When you take away the stylistic fireworks, what's left is a penchant for weak, incomplete stories, pieced together with spit and glue, or for "message" movies, the cinematic equivalent of wheat grass. His work, despite its instinctive beauty, always seems either faintly or fully disappointing, and with "360" he's trending in the wrong direction. Here's hoping that in the future he finds the right vessel for the visceral: his evident talent, if not always his final product, is surely worthy of the word.
"360" is available now from Magnolia On Demand through a variety of VOD platforms (see the complete list here). It opens in theaters August 3. "City of God" and "The Constant Gardener" are readily available on DVD.