Everyone’s a victim in Juliana Reis’ “Auto-Exposure,” a Rio-set noir that aims to uncover the psychological toll of simmering violence on the city’s weary residents. Like many a pic trying to artificially graft “Magnolia” saplings onto a desiccated script, this one fails to bloom, overwatered by stock characters who function as concepts rather than real people. Centered on an interrupted hold-up, in which the perps are run over by a fed-up motorist, “Auto-Exposure” fails to evolve beyond routine situations, and its self-important editing is all show and no substance. Good exposure may be had locally, but overseas will remain underdeveloped.
Chapters with camera themes — “Aperture,” “Shot,” “Exposure,” “Process” — give some order to the messiness, and allow Reis to retrace plotlines via different perspectives. After a promo job at a gay club, photographer Henrique (Gustavo Machado) and assistant Guto (Joao Pedro Zappa) are stopped at a light when a motorcyclist and his pal stick a gun through the window and steal camera equipment. Before the assailants take off, a white pickup truck deliberately slams into the motorcycle. Freaked out, Henrique and Guto drive off, but then return to recover Henrique’s photo card, lying in a bloody pool next to the body of the lead attacker.
Eyewitnesses finger Henrique (who sends Guto home), and he’s questioned by menacing cop Salgado (Silvio Guindane); Brazilians will immediately pick up on the class/race dynamic between the two men. Henrique’s hauled into police HQ for grilling by unsympathetic Inspector Freire (Caco Ciocler), who considers the photog a criminal rather than a victim. What ensues are drearily predictable scenes in the semi-deserted precinct late at night, with Freire supported by the kind of wisecracking fat sidekick (Thelmo Fernandes) seen in countless cheap noirs of the 1950s.
Running parallel are subplots whose narrative fills in the story. Scenes of Henrique shooting promos for a gay club show a seedy underworld of freaks, creeps and scam artists that could be lifted from a 1970s treatment of homosexual life: Older club promoter Cris (Gilberto Gawronski) gets taken by a duplicitous stud and his bartender cohort. When the identity of the driver of the truck is revealed, it serves more as a comment on the downward spiral society has taken. Also acting as a running thread is the underdeveloped character of Bia (Cristina Amadeo), Henrique’s older, hysterically needy g.f., who’s flipping because she can’t get him on the phone.
An opening segment using an English nature program on predators is but one of many obvious elements designed to ensure viewers don’t miss Reis’ point about the way people treat others as antagonists rather than neighbors. Her target is the benumbing threat of violence that seeps through daily life, yet the overall sensation is of a freshman work too reliant on influences and not sufficiently engaged with the characters themselves.
Uneven digital projection in Rio made tech considerations difficult to judge, especially sound quality, though presumably the steely gray tonalities reproduced properly; lensing is a nighttime affair. Editing tries to keep too many balls in the air, with balance a major problem.