Jose Padilha’s controversial tale of drugs and corruption blurs the line between cops and crooks in Rio's violent favelas
The Brazilian-made Elite Squad (or Tropa De Elite) arrives in Britain with something of a reputation. Director Jose Padilha’s semi-fictional portrait of the drug wars in Rio de Janeiro has already become Brazil’s highest grossing film, with pirate copies of the film flooding the country.
The film documents the elite police unit BOPE (State Police Special Operations Battalion), a military-style group operating as a law onto itself when it comes to invading the slums and beating drug dealers into submission.
Unsurprisingly, Brazil’s police force isn't too pleased with the portrayal. The critics are equally unimpressed, the film opening with accusations of following a fascist agenda across the board.
There’s undoubtedly something fascist about the titular squad itself, whose black attire and skull logo conjure up images of mid-century despotism, and whose paperwork would keep Amnesty International busy around the clock.
‘A cop either stays dirty or goes to war,' declares the squad’s leader and film narrator Captain Nascimento, an attitude encapsulating the black-and-white brutality which feeds into the animalistic ‘clean-up’ assaults BOPE stage on the drug slums.
Nascimento’s search for an exit from the BOPE unit frames the action. His choice for a replacement is between best friends Matias and Neto, the former an idealistic lawyer-in-training and the latter a militaristic fanboy.
A ‘one-note celebration of violence-for-good that plays like a recruitment film for fascist thugs’, says Variety. But one feels they, and critics like them, overstate their case. There is definitely something incredibly repellent about the BOPE unit, and Nascimento’s place as the narrator does threaten to skew the film towards their attitude.
But there’s a difference between content and agenda. The film does not condone the actions of BOPE so much as present them as the inevitable endpoint of a society reduced to an Hobbesian state of drugs and guns.
Everyone comes in for criticism. The drug dealers are scumbags. The cops are greedy, lazy and underpaid. The students finance the dealers so they can smoke dope and look cool. Everyone steals from everyone else, and everything has a price.
Nascimento’s role as narrator does not privilege him - he’s a pill-shoving, psychotic mess. In a society where the lines between the good and the bad are blurred, and dealers and cops seem to occupy the same position, BOPE see themselves as the necessary pressure valve for when things break down. The tragedy is that BOPE are required at all.
Politics aside, does the film actually work? To be fair, Elite Squad seems like an extension of City of God, partly because City scripter Braulio Mantovani helped rewrite Padilha’s original draft. The usual paraphernalia of drugs, guns and poverty feature. Stylistically, it’s all heavy colours and cinéma vérité quick cuts. So far, so familiar.
But Elite Squad is nowhere as professional-looking or satisfying as City of God. It is a polemic at heart. It's the director holding up a mirror to a rotten system and telling the viewing public, ‘look how damaged this is.’
The problem with polemics, though, is that they usually don’t make great films. Elite Squad has its fair share of problems. Its structure is clumsy and its tone is brash. It’s unremittingly bleak, if unremittingly bleak for a reason.
The essential absurdity of the system is illustrated in a comic moment, when the cops drag new corpses into an adjacent district to avoid the paperwork, and then their neighbours drag them back. It’s a brief scene, but such a deft sleight of hand is a welcome relief to the pounding cynicism of the narrator.
What rescues the film from Nascimento's brutal banality is the space given to the actors to flesh out the film’s essential earnestness. Elite Squad is not flashy like City of God, but there is an attractive lo-fi quality to most of the film, a semi-improvised air that floats between fiction and documentary and makes the characters genuinely watchable.
Andre Ramiro and Caio Junqueira give good performances as Matias and Neto, the rookie cops struggling with ‘the system’ built between the police and dealers.
Ramiro is especially convincing as the cop-cum-law student who is as familiar with the philosophy of Foucault as he is with firearms, and he must find a way to react against the violence around him. His struggle is the most interesting in the film, and his eventual descent into BOPE brutality is strangely bathetic. His final conversion seems not a vindication of their mentality, but an illustration of a tragic waste, a point many critics have misinterpreted.
Above all, what Elite Squad makes clear is the sheer impossibility of the situation the characters face on a daily basis. As a piece of film it may be unwieldy, but as a social document, it’s powerful and uncompromising. For a fair bit of the running time, it’s an ugly film, but at least it’s an honest kind of ugliness.