Sunday, 7 August 2011

From the archive: "Elite Squad"

In Brazil, the Elite Squad (or BOPE) are the police who police the police. Ostensibly an anti-corruption unit, they dress in black, their logo a skull pierced by both a knife and the barrel of a gun. You could be forgiven, watching the opening sequence of José Padilha's electrifying favela drama Elite Squad, in mistaking them for a death squad: their zero tolerance policy extends to shooting dead drug dealers and corrupt cops with an equal lack of compunction. Padilha's film, which won the Golden Bear for best film in Berlin this year while sparking heated debate, depicts the squad's efforts to clean up a slum (by any means necessary) in anticipation of a Papal visit to Rio. (With typical irony, Padilha names the mission Operation Holiness.)

The narrator, and our entry point, is the weary Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura) - greying at the temples, with a pregnant wife back at home (not normally a good sign in a film such as this) - who's getting, in the parlance of the North American cop movie, too old for this shit, and becoming increasingly sickened by the slappings and suffocation he feels compelled to dole out on a nightly basis; the closest the film has to a conscience, in other words. Prepared never to have to venture into the favelas again, he's nonetheless forced to stay on and train up the two rookies most likely to replace him, if they can stay alive long enough. The brainy Matias (André Ramiro) is a law student keeping his extra-curricular activities from classmates who insist all cops are inherently corrupt. The rougher, tougher Neto (Cato Junqueira) appears more open to playing the system, particularly if it means getting the squad better squad cars - a Machiavellian approach that inevitably results in further bloodshed.

In Berlin, the controversy arose over whether the film might be understood as an apologia for the Elite Squad's hardline (fascist, its detractors insist) methods. I don't believe Padilha - director of the documentary Bus 174, one of the more astute and sensitive analyses of Brazilian society, and the failings of its police force in particular - is someone capable of making that sort of film; to me, Elite Squad looked like a very clear-sighted vision of what happens when the system breaks down. Some of it resembles an absurdist, Kafkaesque comedy, as when Neto goes to bully spare parts from a garage owner and finds himself in a gridlock of parked cars and beat cops fining those drivers who refuse to pay protection money, or the mordantly funny episode in which officers move dead bodies from one part of the favela to another in order to lower the murder rate in their part of town.

As far as the central thrust goes, you sense Padilha's interest in the Elite Squad lies not in the possibility their shoot-first-ask-questions-later policy might be taken as heroic, but in their status as a last resort: those turned to after it's become apparent nothing else - whether conventional policing, whose underpaid officers too easily fall into the pay of drug dealers, or philanthropic NGO-style endeavours, whose good intentions count for little against the combination of hard drugs and heavy artillery - really works in the favelas. The director's documentary background is most apparent from a sequence at the BOPE training camp, conducted after dark in the manner of a Klan rally, where new recruits are routinely humiliated, forced to carry live hand grenades, and eat their food off the ground. (As Captain Nascimento observes, "I know some people think of BOPE as a cult.")

As full-on in its militaristic pomp as this section undeniably is, it hardly appears to be waving the flag for the Elite Squad as an attractive career option; again, the tone leans towards the comic, and the recruits' endeavours begin to look as ridiculous as Army boot-camp exercises always do to anybody who's not in the Army. Much of the film is like that: relentless - its camera, which is absolutely that of a documentarist charging into fiction, constantly on the prowl, trying to cover everything in any given scene - and complicated in the way it has to set out a decaying power structure, and I can see why some early notices of the film were so muddled and mistaken.

Equally, though, there's something truly sobering in Padilha's insistence that, as it stands, nothing good can come out of the slums, or from those touched and tainted by them. Just as Nascimento insists there's no reason for an honest cop to enter the favela - because he'll be killed, or got at some other, more insidious way - so too the film is no country for the weak of heart; but it builds on the themes and social critique set out in the already substantial achievement of Bus 174 in constantly gripping and surprising ways, and looks - to these eyes, at least - like a powerhouse piece of filmmaking.

(June 2008)

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