British television sends viewers a "Postcard From Rio" tonight with a message that reads something like "Don't wish you were here."
Poor Rio de Janeiro. Brazil's sensual city by the sea has its problems, and this video visit manages to touch on many of them. Indeed, the list becomes so long -- extreme poverty, rampant street crime, social unrest, bungling bureaucracy, a seemingly indifferent upper class -- you begin to wonder why anybody who has a choice still lives there. Or goes there on a holiday.
And yet, despite the BBC production's mostly negative focus, tropical Rio still manages to display enough of the old charm that you might decide to ignore this postcard and have a look for yourself. Its setting between soaring green mountains and wide golden beaches remains stunning. The old city center retains much of its appealing colonial Portuguese heritage. The locals, called Cariocas, are very friendly. And good food and lively music are staples of life.
The beach scenes alone, exhibiting male and female Cariocas in their famous scanty bathing suits, should be enough to send some travelers flying down to Rio.
But don't tune in to "Postcard," airing tonight on Channel 26 at 9, expecting an intelligent, well-balanced documentary on a sophisticated city in decline. This tour of Rio is mostly a superficial one, though Clive James, the production's author and narrator, manages to keep his 48-minute report interesting and sometimes humorous -- in a snide sort of way.
The best part of the presentation, and the saddest, is a walk through one of Rio's favelas, the notorious hillside slums. As wretched as they are, however, James points out that the favelas are a big step up for a large family forced to live in a cardboard box in a sidewalk gutter.
The silliest, and dullest, episode is a visit to a luxurious Rio motel that rents rooms by the hour, apparently to a clientele of office workers interested in a bit of sex during their lunch break. Does James intend for viewers to believe that Rio has a monopoly on office liaisons?
And some of the reporting is downright unfair. James warns that some visitors apparently have had jewelry snatched from their necks while standing in their hotel lobby. But is this a common occurrence? Or did it happen only once? James doesn't tell us.
One voice of hope comes from a young entrepreneur in the seaside resort of Buzios, northeast of Rio. Brazil's "new generation," he tells James, is developing a social responsibility -- by which he means both a conscience and the courage to attack the city's and the country's problems.
"Postcard" could spark your interest in seeing Rio, or it could frighten you away. James himself is ambivalent. The city "scared me half to death," he sums up, "but I felt alive there."