Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite)
Brazil (2007) Dir. José Padilha
Making films isn’t easy, but Brazilian director José Padilha endured a whole litany of problems in getting this daring expose on police corruption into the cinemas. From lawsuits by the police and interference from Brazilian drug lords to demands for censorship and even DVD pirates leaking the film early, it is a wonder Elite Squad saw the light of day.
This utterly brutal and uncompromising second outing for Padilha takes a look at police corruption and the resultant abuse of power towards the denizens of the slums of Rio de Janeiro in conjunction with the local drug lords. Somewhere in the middle is the Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais (BOPE), a special police task force who, you might have already surmised from the film’s title, are not to be messed with.
Set in 1997 the story is narrated by Captain Roberto Nascimento (Wagner Moura), a high-ranking BOPE commander hoping for a promotion to allow him to spend more time with his wife Rosane (Maria Ribeiro) and their imminently arriving baby. Nascimento is looking for a replacement and he has two rookies in mind: best friends André Matias (André Ramiro) and Neto Gouveia (Caio Junqueira).
Assigned to different details for their police training, André and Neto are exposed to the infighting and turf war between the corrupt officers and the cover-ups of unlawful killings by the police. For André, who wants to be a criminal lawyer, things get complicated when he attends law school where drugs are openly sold, but he doesn’t reveal he is a police officer. He is discovered by the drugs lord Baiano (Fábio Lago) but a plan to take out André goes horribly wrong.
Because the way the law has been abused in this tale, the morality is completely skewed and blurred beyond recognition, leading to Padilha being accused of glorying the police’s use of violence and holding them up as role models. He vehemently denied this and audiences backed him up, yet even when it feels justly deserved, the brutality meted out by the BOPE is blood curdling.
Ironically, they take a lofty stance on corruption and happily separate themselves from the police themselves, their specialist status affording them a certain leeway with the limit of their physical responses, which in turn has earned them a reputation with the criminals too. Padilha used as his source material the book Elite da Tropa by sociologist Luiz Eduardo Soares and two former BOPE captains.
A team of ex-BOPE officers trained the cast and educated Padilha in their practices which incurred one of the lawsuits (it was dismissed), and whilst their skills and prowess are admirable, they are relentlessly violent, bordering on inhumane; even the regular police don’t mess with them. The term “elite” is not used lightly for the BOPE, with only one or two rookies making it through the demoralising and demanding training.
The journey of André and Neto from two idealistic rookie police officers with noble intentions to uncompromising thuggish soldiers is a key part of the narrative, but is a little lost. For someone who kept his cool whilst his rich kid classmates – including love interest Maria (Fernanda Machado) – berate all police as corrupt fascists, the extreme change in André pointedly reminds us that there are no good guys when fire is fought with fire.
Perhaps a less obvious plot thread is this attitude of the rich and the powerful towards the police, the privileged kids believing they have a right to smoke dope and the drug lords the right to sell it. Yet, the one person who helps a young poor boy with sight problems Romerito (Allan Guilherme) is André because of his impoverish upbringing – the others are too busy getting high.
The script, co-written with Bráulio Mantovani (City Of God), contains numerous subplots that make this a very packed 104-minute film, many of which are fertile stories for full exploration in their own right. There’s Nascimento’s near breakdown over the death of a young look out for Baiano and the feud between two corrupt police captains, which ends in a public shoot out with a drug gang after Neto’s plan to fix it backfires.
It is not hard to got lost in the violence and venal activities of the police, but the subtext of the greater social injustice of how this all unfolds in areas where the poorest live tends to slip into the background. Padilha is deliberately showing us a Rio that is far from the vibrant, carnival capital of the world image associated with it, intending to hold those in power accountable for letting it happen.
But it must have struck a note as, despite an apparent 15 million people watching it on pirate DVD, Elite Squad has become one of Brazil’s highest grossing films of all time, and almost assuredly, it was a sense of shame and not censorship that encouraged the lawsuits and attacks against this film. That is the true power of cinema, folks.
Filming is via handheld camera that rarely sits still with so much going on. This allows for much of the violence to occur off camera since most of it is executed with precise swiftness, but doesn’t lessen its impact. The washed out colour palette and grainy veneer adds a gritty air of authenticity but the ever present golden glow of the scorching Rio sun remains a pervasive presence throughout.
To truly appreciate this film, its intentions and accomplishments you need to see it for yourself as mere words can’t do it justice with so much needing to be discussed. The narrative may seem complex, beginning in medias res, then flashbacks six months before continuing the main story, but Padilha deftly brings it all together.
It is impossible not be bowled over by Elite Squad, be it the raw urgency, suffocating sweaty atmosphere, cloying righteous arrogance and appalling lack of humanity and compassion. This is a vital and exhilarating piece of cinema.