BERLIN FILM REVIEW: Jose Padilha’s ‘The Elite Squad’

'Elite Squad' 2008 x650

By Ray Bennett

BERLIN – In Jose Padilha’s crude and violent film “The Elite Squad,” the pope is visiting Rio de Janeiro and he needs a good night’s sleep so the local police commander sends his crack troops into the closest slum to kill everybody.

Well, not everybody, but all the drug-dealing scum his specially trained officers can find and by any means possible, preferably a high-powered rifle. It means there will be blood and lots of it, all captured by a dizzying hand-held camera racing through some of the worst cases of urban blight on the planet.

Poorly structured and at times incoherent, what box office appeal the film has will rely on its sheer pace and the amount of torture and killing that goes on, so it should do fine.

The basic assumption of the script by Padilha and Rodrigo is that everyone in Rio is corrupt and especially the authorities. Policemen accept bribes for whatever pays the most: do their jobs or turn a blind eye. They even steal the engines from their own squad cars, sell them and put a piece of junk under the hood instead.

Capt. Nascimento (Wagner Moura) is a cop with integrity but it’s driving him crazy as he risks his life daily battling bad guys in and out of uniform. Plus he has a pregnant wife at home who wishes he would quit.

He’s trying hard to accommodate her wish but he needs to find a replacement to take over command of the elite squad. Since everyone else has been compromised he settles on two rookies who have been best friends since childhood, the brave but hair-triggered Neto (Ciao Junqueira) and the cautious but shrewd Matias (Andre Ramiro).

For some reason their work involves getting second jobs so that Neto works at the police auto shop while Matias goes to law school. Neto’s commitment leads him to devise a way of intercepting payoffs drug dealers make to the local commander and using the money to supply the squad cars with desperately needed new parts.

Matias hides the fact that he’s a cop from the other students including pretty Maria (Fernando Machado) and takes no action when they fire up joints.

Both situations lead to dangerous complications although the story is told in a confusing mix of time-shifting flashbacks and at the end there’s still no sign of the pope.

Before they can join the elite squad, however, Neto and Matias have to make it through an odd sort of training camp that involves ritual humiliation. Then, they’re handed high-powered rifles and sent into the slums to kill everybody.

Well, not everybody.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival, In Competition; Cast: Wagner Moura; Andre Ramiro; Ciao Junqueira; Milhem Cortaz; Fernando Machado; Maria Ribeiro; Paulo Vilela; Fernando de Freitas; Andre Mauro; Fabio Lago; Producers: Marcos Prado, Jose Padilha; Director: Jose Padilha; Writers: Jose Padilha, Rodrigo Pimentel, Braulio Mantovani; Director of cinematography: Lula Carvalho; Production designer: Tule Peake; Music: Pedro Bromfman; Co-producers: Eliana Soarez, James D’Arcy; Costume designer: Claudia Kopke; Editor: Daniel Rezende. Executive producers: Maria Clara Ferreira, Bia Castro, Genna Terranova, Eduardo Constantini; The Weinstein Co.; No MPAA rating; running time 118 mins.

This review appeared in The Hollywood Reporter.

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One Response to BERLIN FILM REVIEW: Jose Padilha’s ‘The Elite Squad’

  1. Fabricio says:

    Dear Ray Bennett,

    I really appreciated reading your take on this movie. Elite Squad has transcended the boundaries of artistic circles and became a huge social debate in Brazil. The movie took such a magnitude that an outsiders view can be quite refreshing. It is, no doubt, the Brazilian movie which had the biggest impact on the general public and critics for a generation. Cinema in Brazil is already limited to the limited percentage of the population that can afford it. When we speak about Brazilian movies, the situation is even worse. So, to have millions watching and talking about this movie is a very extraordinary feat in itself. I am not saying it is a great movie because of that, but the buzz that sourrounded it happened for a reason and it diserves a closer look.

    I was one of the millions who actually saw the movie in its original version. Unfourtunatelly I have not had the chance to see the english or the german versions (which I will as soon as the dvd is out). I think that part of the bad reviews it has been getting in Berlin must be due to either a bad translation or hasty analysis. In the three reviews I read so far (including this one), yours is the only one which do not contain major misunderstandings of the plot. The fact that the character Andre attends law together with his work on the force is very common. It is just someone who works and study part-time. The job of the character Neto in the police force IS taking care of the cars (it is not a second job). By what you wrote, it seems that the two young policemen were drawned to the BOPE merely because of the seductive integrity/brutality of the elite squad. In fact, they were clearly drawned to it but it was also a necessity since their position in the corrupt batallion to which they belonged had been exposed by that episode in which they were trying to avoid their fellow policeman being killed by their corrupt superiors.

    Anyway, I do not agree that there is no structure and I dont think that the pope not showing up makes any difference whatsoever. Obviously, the movie is not about the pope. It seems to have gone unnoticed that whatever your take on the poltical undertone of the movie is, there are a couple of undisputable qualities. The performance of the actor Wagner Moura who plays Capitao Nascimento is as visceral, truthful and powerful as it gets. The plot carries more complexity than what the ‘fascist’ labellling suggests. Of course that the narrator-character perception is extremelly twisted. Torture and killing, as the movie demonstrates, is not something that is pretty and not something that solves any problem. I know that for western readeres, the mere consideration of the utilitarian gains of torture and killing is outrageous. For me as well. But not for some considerable parts of the Brazilian public. The complexity in the plot is in the fact that it exposes authoritarian tendencies of parts of the Brazilian public (parts of the poor majority, who suffers directly from the druf traffic violence and want desperatelly something done about it, and part of the middle and upper classes who would rather have the army on the streets to avoid their scandalously expensive cars and jewelry being mugged). The views of Capitao Nascimento are actually shared by many in my country.

    As for the portrayal of the “do-gooders” and middle class junkies, there are two points to be made. First, the importance of drug traffic and specially drug consumption in the scalation of violence has to be congratulated. Drug consumers in Brazil and also from Europe (destiny of most of the production that leaves a trail of blood through latin america), have to aknowledge that it comes from somewhere and that it has a very high human cost. I have lived in Europe for a coupe of years and many of the most radical fair-trade campaigners saw no problem whatsoever consuming pot or cocaine.Where do we go from there, is another story. The second point is that the movie does treat the “do-gooders” and the university students with a disproportional simplicity and reductionism, verging the ridicule. Of course, you could say it is the perspective of Capitao Nascimento. On the other hand, the visual and moral depiction of both sides of the argument lends some streaks of heroism to the BOPE. This was the most criticized feature of the movie. The Director, Jose Padilla, argued that the counterbalance to the heroic depiction of Capitao Nascimento was his contant panic attacks (one of the signs that that life was not working out well) and the crude depiction of violence (for him, a statement in itself).

    I guess that Padilla’s got it very right on one hand and very wrong on the other. On one hand, he was able to dialogue with the common person’s dillemas and perspective. On the other, he was unable to convey the terrible degenerating nature and effects of violence and torture. He assumed everyone would consider that unacceptable. But history has shown time and again that horror can be made to look normal and rightous.

    If you forget the political debate for a while and look at the moral personal dillemas facing that policemen, they are no simpler or less interesting than that of characters such as Travis Bickle or Michael Corleone. Someone passionatelly trying to do the right thing and tragically being swallowed in circumstances not quite under their control. Violence and brutallity are another common features. The movie is worthwhile to anyone who wants to have a closer look at what many slums in the world are faced with in a daily basis (unfourtunatelly not a Brazilian only phenomenon in time and geographically). It is not as round and handsomely shot as City of Gods. It is indeed crude, in its form and content (which does not necessarily make it bad). I personally think that the acting of Wagner Moura alone is worth the ticket.

    Politically, it does actually have a dangerous authoritarian glamour that could have been addressed better. The most important aspect though is that it connected all the Brazilian society from top to bottom in a huge wave of discussions and forums. From the most exclusive intellectual cafes to the most popular slum sinuca bar, the discussion was the issues brought up by the movie. It has created visibility for the issue of torture (which is known by everyone but not mentioned or discussed as a real problem since democratization in the late 1980’s). Presenting the situation through the perspective of policemen and exposing the role of the middle class was also very interesting.

    Besides nurturing the vice of cinema, I am also a lawyer who works with NGOs and slums and who has just got a masters degree in International Human Rights Law. It is clear that Nascimento became the hero of many people in Brazil, which makes the work of any human rights professional a little bit more difficult. On the other hand, never before the subject was more discussed than in the last year. I hope that the critical perspective and common sense prevails over the stupidity of hailing brutal violence as the answer for crime and poverty. One way or another, I reckon that the movie is very interesting even in its mistakes and I honestly think it helped a lot in raising the issue for debate. I am terribly sorry for the lenght of the comment (closer to a thesis). I hope it helped to shed some different lights on the movie.

    Cheers,

    Fabricio

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