Rio de Janeiro, Brazil has long been known as a city precariously balanced on the edge of chaos. A city of vibrant culture and life, it is also one of the most dangerous cities in the world. The majority of its population lives in one of 70 slums, known as favelas, which are ruled by violent drug gangs. These heavily armed gangs routinely engage in pitched gun battles with the police, with the city’s residents often caught in the crossfire.
With the police force under funded, under equipped and rife with corruption, the drug gangs pretty much have their way within the confines of the favelas and frequently outgun the police when fighting spills over into the city proper. The situation is bad enough that the government created a special paramilitary force known as BOPE (Battalion for Special Police Operations) charged with dealing with the drug gangs. With their symbol being a skull flanked by crossed swords and a pistol, it’s no secret what these guys are about. The new film “Tropa de Elite” (“Elite Squad”) spotlights BOPE in a way the Brazilian government would probably rather it didn’t.
Written by Rodrigo Pimentel, a 12 year veteran of BOPE himself, “Tropa de Elite” is a grim, frequently shocking, but ultimately evenhanded critique of the cycle of violence that engulfs Rio. The film focuses on Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura, “Carandiru”), a hard-nosed squad commander in BOPE. With the birth of his first child only weeks away, Nascimento is struggling to find the reasons to keep putting his life on the line every day at work. He finally hatches a plan to find a replacement for his position so that he can quit the force.
This brings us to a parallel plot thread concerning two young police cadets – Neto, a gung-ho trigger happy thug and Matias, a fevela resident who attends law school on the side – whom Nacimento marks as his potential replacements. The problem is that he sees the qualities he wants in each man, but not enough of them in either one. However, several incursions into the favelas to clean them out ahead of a visit by the Pope shape the men in unexpected and tragic ways.
Filmed in a hand-held Cinéma-vérité style, “Tropa de Elite” is a fast paced and engaging film. It can almost be called a kind of the anti-”City of God,” following the police rather than the criminals. It employs a similar episodic narrative structure (complete with chapter breaks) and deadpan narration that keeps the energy high and the story moving forward. And like “City of God,” it doesn’t shy away from showing the grim realities of the conflict between the police and drug gangs. It offers a scathing portrayal of the corruption that is engrained in The System which prevents the wheels of justice from turning.
Each division commander has his own scam going, be it collecting protection money from the local strip clubs or selling confiscated guns back to the drug gangs. There’s even a hilarious sequence where each division keeps moving the dead bodies from a gang shoot-out to another division’s jurisdiction so their field reports look better. However, despite BOPE claiming to only want uncorrupted officers amongst its ranks, the film shows them routinely engaging in tactics ranging from torture to out and out murder. But the film does not demonize BOPE for its heavy-handed tactics. Rather, it calls attention to the impossible situation Brazilian society has painted itself into. The streets are controlled by the drug gangs through violence of such a level that the only conceivable way to combat it is through greater violence. Unfortunately, this leaves the average citizen to deal with the consequences.
“Tropa de Elite” was a sensation in Brazil before it was even released in theaters thanks to it ironically falling victim to the rampant crime it criticizes. A rough cut of the film was stolen from the editing studio and bootleg DVDs flooded the usual channels. The film has touched a nerve among Brazilians. With the country still struggling to come to terms with its past and recent history of paramilitary death squads, it has garnered praise and criticism in equal measure from all parts of society. The government, naturally, has condemned the film’s position that BOPE operates outside the law, with the government condoning torture and murder as routine investigative practices (after all, ‘torture’ is no worse than Fraternity hazing, right?). However, the citizenry, particularly the residents of the favelas, have praised the film as painfully truthful. Reality is probably somewhere in between, but with the film’s script writer being a former member of BOPE, I’m inclined to think it’s pretty ugly.
“Tropa de Elite” is a harsh and frequently painful film to watch, but its unflinching portrayal of Rio’s struggles is fascinating. While its style is perhaps too slavishly reliant on Tarantino-esque structuring, it’s not as convoluted as other films of this type, such as the works of Alejandro González Iñárritu. The pseudo-documentary style camera work does get a bit hyperactive at times, but thankfully doesn’t make viewing the film a vertiginous experience. Overall, this is a thoughtful, insightful and frequently darkly funny film, but the impact of its social commentary is very real.
José Padilha (director) / Bráulio Mantovani, José Padilha, Rodrigo Pimentel (screenplay)
CAST: Wagner Moura … Capitão Nascimento
Caio Junqueira … Neto
André Ramiro … André Matias
Milhem Cortaz … Capitão Fábio
Luiz Gonzaga de Almeida
Fernanda de Freitas … Roberta
Bruno Delia … Capitão Azevedo
Marcelo Escorel … Coronel Otávio