"Elite Squad": Guilty or Innocent? By Marcelo Janot

in 9th Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival

by Marcelo Janot

The Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival is the great chance for Brazilian moviegoers to see the major festival winners (Venice, Cannes, Berlin), along with dozens of Brazilian and Latin American premieres. But at the 2007 edition, one single Brazilian film, presented at the opening night, held almost all the attention: Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite), the first fictional feature by documentary film maker José Padilha (Bus 174). The buzz about Elite Squad started a few months ago, when a work print was pirated while being subtitled. Soon, illegal DVD copies were offered on the streets of Rio and became a huge — if illicit — success. The police arrested those responsible for the copyright violation, but the damage was done.

Elite Squad is the most expensive Brazilian film yet produced, with a budget of 5 million US Dollars, and the producers feared the consequences of the early leak. But the pirated DVDs performed a sort of viral marketing service for the film: Brazilian working-class audiences, who’ve been leveraged away from theaters due to an economic apartheid (the cost of a cinema ticket, around 9 US Dollars, is an obscene luxury for a Brazilian worker), bought pirate DVDs for 2.50 US Dollars and were able to participate in a discussion about the film’s violent story, which directly deals the reality of their everyday lives in the slums, the favelas.

The Rio Festival opened with the first public screening of Elite Squad, making it safe for those who had seen it on DVD to talk openly about the film without fear of arrest. The movie offers plenty to talk about; it’s the most-discussed Brazilian film since City of God (Cidade de Deus). First of all, on a strictly technical plane, it has the production values of a Hollywood action movie. The lead actor, Wagner Moura, is excellent; director of photography Lula Carvalho and editor Daniel Rezende do a superb job constructing the film’s atmosphere and rhythm, involving the audience in a hypnotic history of violence that doesn’t allow them a moment to draw breath.

You can’t breathe, and you also have no time to reflect — a point that adds more controversy to the film. Elite Squad has two main characters: Nascimento, a captain with the BOPE (Special Police Operation Battalion) who serves as the movie’s narrator, and André Matias, a new recruit to the Military Police. Nascimento is trying to resign his command and find a replacement: His wife is pregnant and he’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown because of the stressful job of fighting heavily armed drug dealers. He is nevertheless proud of BOPE, a very exclusive squad that, as he puts it, employs only brave and extremely honest men, and doesn’t flinch from the use of torture as a method to fight the criminals.

Matias, on the other hand, encounters all manners of corruption from his superiors at the Military Police, and, with the help of a scholarship, studies law at a university for the wealthy. His colleagues at the university use a social charity non-governmental organization in the favela for getting close to the local drug lord and doing business with him, buying drugs to sell at the university. Matias’ only chance of fighting this rotten system comes by joining the BOPE.

Based on a book written by two former BOPE captains together with a prestigious anthropologist, every element of Elite Squad depicts Rio de Janeiro’s daily reality of violence, hypocrisy and corruption, which contaminated the police force and hampers efforts at drug prevention. Filmed in a documentary style, it depicts many superficial and stereotypical characters and situations, suggesting that all military police are corrupted, all rich students are drug users whose actions finance the criminal underworld, and that drug dealers must be punished with torture and death.

This Hollywood logic would seem to be the perfect recipe to reach the top of the box office — don’t be surprised if Miramax pushes hard to get Oscar nominations for the film — but in a society that sees no solutions for this chaotic panorama, it’s really dangerous when a film suggests that the fascist BOPE methods are the only solution to “clean” the city.