With its searing violence and lack of any known actors Elite Squad will have to survive in the marketplace on the basis of its controversial subject matter. The public, however, may be turned off by its explicitness and at times confused plotting.
A surprise winner of the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, Brazil’s controversial Elite Squad recounts the cycle of violence unfurling only a few yards from the tranquil beaches of Rio de Janeiro as well as the incipient corruption within the police force. With no star names and a tough subject, it will be hard sell despite being a runaway hit on its home turf.
Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura) has had enough of being on the frontline and wants to hand over the reins. Two of the force’s newest recruits, Neto (Caio Junqueira) and Matias (André Ramiro), are childhood friends and one of them would make the perfect replacement in the Dirty Harry mould.
Matias is a bookish type drawn to police work because of his love of the law; Neto is an initially timid boy who reveals an unpredictable streak out in the field. Over an episodic structure that hits multiple successive climaxes, Padilha’s film experiments with various approaches to its cast of conflicted action men. Initially, as Neto and Matias recoil from corruption and Captain Nascimento experiences panic attacks brought on by the brutality of his working life, the film’s morality seems clear.
But then a battle in a favela alters everything: membership in BOPE becomes a glorified state, and Neto and Matias shelve their ethical qualms and enter the punishing initiation process.
Padilha, who based much of his material on interviews with working officers, doesn’t flinch from showing the violence in gory detail—and it is decidedly ill-advised for anyone with a weak stomach. Although the director has been vilified for being everything from a subversive left-winger to an extreme fascist, some of Rio’s police officers felt confident (or desperate) enough to collaborate with Padilha and his actors.
The narrative pulls no punches in its depiction of violence and the torture methods used by the police. In real-life, the authorities demanded to know who had revealed the use of such tactics, while human rights groups claimed that Padilha sought to glorify the brutality on display.
When Padilha made his previous film, the documentary Bus 174, he met many policemen and realized that the violence in Brazil was being bred by the state itself. It breeds violent criminals by mistreating juvenile delinquents, and then also creates violent and corrupt cops who have to deal with them. When the police he talked to declined to go on record (or only if they were heavily disguised with backs to the camera), he decided that it had to be done as a fictional movie.
Such was the curiosity surrounding the film that an unfinished copy was spirited away from a laboratory where it was being subtitled and made into millions of bootleg copies. Elite Squad had reportedly been seen clandestinely on DVD by more than 11 million viewers before it was screened publicly as the opening film at the Rio de Janeiro Film Festival.
It was the biggest box office hit of last year in Brazil, and the total audience was around 23 million—yet at the beginning the director had many doubts that anyone would want to see it. Financing proved tricky at first because the filmmakers would not guarantee a happy ending. Individually, members of the force have applauded
for showing how the circumstances and conditions of the job make them victims of the state itself. Padiha points out that the number of policemen murdered every year is huge and that recruits would only take the job if they were in dire straits.
Cast: Wagner Moura, Andre Ramiro, Caio Junqueira, Milhem Cortaz and Fernanda Machado
Director: José Padilha
Screenwriters: José Padilha and Marcos Prado
Producers: Braulio Mantovani, Jose Padilha and Rodrigo Pimentel
Rating: R for strong violence, pervasive language and drug content
Running time: 118 min.
Release date: September 19 ltd.