Elite Squad (18)

Brazil's corrupt elite police squads are seen in a less than flattering light in this nihilistic action thriller
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The Independent Culture

Normally, I don't worry too much about what other critics say. I read them, agree or disagree – but lose sleep over their opinions? Well, it happens. It happened at the Berlin Film Festival this February; I reviewed the Brazilian feature Elite Squad, which won the top prize. I was enthusiastic about José Padilha's kinetic, unapologetically macho, police drama, but with reservations: my review concluded, "Arguably, the film could be read as a nihilistic, even reactionary statement."

I began to worry that my "arguably" was too much of a qualification. Variety called the film "a one-note celebration of violence-for-good that plays like a recruitment film for fascist thugs". Watching the film again, I don't think Elite Squad is fascistic. It simply uses militaristic rhetoric in the context of a brutal action thriller to draw attention to a pressing issue: the parlous state of policing in Brazil. That Elite Squad is an undeniably sensationalist entertainment doesn't make it any less intelligent: it simply pummels you to attention. This may not be the sort of cinematic argumentation that we Sunday-broadsheet liberals normally favour, but it works.

It certainly worked in Brazil, where Elite Squad was seen by 11 million viewers in pirated editions before even reaching cinemas. Elite Squad is fiction with the urgency of pulp reportage. Its subject is Bope (Special Police Operations Battalion), a paramilitary force that patrols the favelas to clean up drug gangs; the squad's shoot-first methods have been roundly condemned by Amnesty International, among others. Bope's coat of arms makes its ethos clear: carbines, daggers and a grinning skull. This is the death-metal approach to policing.

The first section of a convoluted narrative follows two rookies through Rio's regular police force. Headstrong Neto (Caio Junqueira) is placed in charge of his division's motor pool, but finds the service so riddled with backhanding that he can't keep his cars running unless he wages war on his own superiors. And Matias (André Ramiro) is an idealist who studies law on the side and becomes fascinated with theories of policing: a highbrow cop who knows his Foucault. The film's narrator is Bope commander Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura), presumably voicing the insider knowledge of the film's co-writer, Rodrigo Pimentel, himself a former Bope captain. Nascimento is brutish, cynical, dour, and in his element terrorising suspects and recruits alike: Elite Squad's centrepiece, a startling boot-camp sequence, could only be considered a "recruitment film" for the very hardiest masochists.

Moura's grim delivery and the Mickey Spillane flavour of his voice-over encourage us to take a critical distance from Nascimento's brutalist stance. "As long as the dealers have drugs," he says, "we have no choice." But if we take Nascimento's words as the film's own argument, then we're not reading closely enough. Nascimento is hardly an idealised enforcer hero, but a damaged bundle of traumas: popping tranquillisers, making bad decisions, messing up in his marriage. Nascimento is as screwed up as Bope itself, and Brazil.

As for Matias, he falls for co-student Maria (Fernanda Machado); she does social work in a favela ruled by a drug lord. The students are largely depicted as hypocritically compromised brats – but then, why should the intelligentsia in the film be exempted from Padilha's universal critique? The film itself suggests that Bope is the product of Brazil's endemically corrupt system. It's a cynical, perhaps pessimistic view, but hardly a justification of Bope thuggery. Apparently, Bope brutality has worsened since the film's release.

Elite Squad belongs in an honourable tradition, its bilious insider depiction of police corruption akin to the novels of James Ellroy and Joseph Wambaugh. In any case, it's a welcome rarity to see a popular, tabloidy genre film that stirs up genuine debate. But endorsing fascism? As I said, only arguably – and it's an argument that will run and run.