Bristolatino’s Film and Theatre editor, Charlotte Custot, takes us down the bloody streets of Rio from a range of viewpoints in the 2007 José Padhila film, Tropa de Elite.
I was filled with an overwhelming and unavoidable sensation of unease at the end of the screening of Elite Squad, recognising that nothing could have prepared me emotionally for what I was to see—especially given that the director had initially intended the project to be a documentary. After two breathless hours crammed with plastic bags tied around the gasping faces of rooky kids, gut-twisting offences and relentless chases, I find my words spilling over the page in the same erratic spurts as the unpredictable symphony of gunshots that reverberate throughout the film.
The audience enters the oppressively populated and impenetrable slums of Rio in the 1990s. Just like in the City of God (2002, Fernand Meirelles and Kátia Lund) the slums are impervious to justice. The difference now is the introduction of a special paramilitary force known as BOPE (Battalion for Special Police Operations) run by Captain Nascimento, who’s duty is to deal with the drug gangs that infest the favelas. Their symbol is a chivalrous duel sword tainted by a cracked skull and crossed guns, while Nascimento’s motto is ‘mission assigned is mission accomplished’. Put simply: this is war. This war is ironically exacerbated with the coming of the Pope to the city’s worst slum; simultaneously a blessing and a curse, an additional pressure is made to provide him with a ‘good night’s sleep’.
One is invited to experience these areas through the eye of a destabilising hand-held camera from varying viewpoints that allows the viewer to identify with all levels of social groups. It alternates between middle class students passing around joints carefree of where they have come from; ruthless drug dealers dressed in little more than the guns they carry; Nascimento, a soon-to-be-father looking for a suitable replacement, but whose unstoppable determination to impose justice makes the line between himself and those he considers criminals completely indiscernible. These standpoints are all the more accentuated by the organic motions of the cine-eye, at times made through nervous worried steps or explosive adrenaline-fuelled pursuits fuelled, leaving its own lens spotted with blood.
So violent are these scenes that it sometimes verges on the ridiculous. One uproarious sequence shows the separate BOPE divisions transporting the dead bodies from a gang shoot-out to another division’s jurisdiction to keep their field cleaner. Padihla later commented on this sequence:
“The institution is so corrupt and the knowledge of this is so widespread that it’s ridiculous to even try to argue with the movie. That’s why regular cops didn’t sue us.”
In another sequence one member of the BOPE is told to remove his sunglasses when in a meeting, but seeing as he has a pink eye, is quickly ordered to put them back on. The darkly funny moment provides a fleeting but palpable commentary on the danger of life in the slums becoming visible to those outside of them. Yet, in the end, the police are encouraged to cover up such signs.
Elite Squad cuts dangerously close to the bone and reveals the doomed fate of righteousness (whether it be of a Captain driven to eradicate drug dealing through any means necessary or a youngster with lookout duty), in a corrupt-beyond-imagination world. Characters from all sides seemed predestined to become irreversibly tainted by group loyalty, causing the blue of the police and the red of the heated slums to turn to dried purple blood. Even a brain and heart driven policeman, desperately trying to merge his desire for a law degree and a cop career, eventually fails and instead demonstrates the toxicity of attempting to bring incompatible social groups together in the same way society tries to. This metaphor raises the question of whether corruption is in fact the only conceivable solution for the impossible situation Brazilian society has painted itself into.
Is it also ironic to point out that a major element responsible for the making of the film was through numerous bribes and accords, whilst its vast national success was primarily made possible through its illegal distribution?
All photos taken from screenshots.