Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Elite Squad

Tropa de Elite, English title: The Elite Squad. Literally: Elite Troop) is a Brazilian film released on October 5, 2007. The movie is a semi-fictional account of the BOPE (Portuguese: Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais), the Special Police Operations Battalion of the Rio de Janeiro Military Police. It is the second feature film and first fiction film of director José Padilha, who had previously directed the acclaimed documentary Bus 174. The script was written by Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Bráulio Mantovani, based on the book Elite da Tropa by sociologist Luiz Eduardo Soares and two former BOPE captains, André Batista and Rodrigo Pimentel.

The movie, set in 1997, depicts the story of Captain Nascimento, a BOPE captain, who with the imminent birth of his first child, is determined to leave the battalion and find a safer position for the sake of his family, but first he must find a suitable replacement for himself. At the same time, the movie focuses on two childhood friends, Matias and Neto, who become cadets in the military police, but become dismayed at the corruption surrounding them. Eventually, both Nascimento and the cadets' paths intersect, when the captain hopes that one of the two may become the substitute he is eager to find, as both decide to join the BOPE.

Comparisons between Tropa de Elite, from director Jose Padilha, and Fernando Meirelles' 2000 film City of God are inevitable. The films are similar in look, style, feel, location, and even a similar voice-over is employed. But rather feeling like a rip-off, Tropa de Elite feels more like an homage or a continuation. This will undoubtedly be one of the better films of 2008 by year’s end.

Before a visit by the Pope, a special elite squad is sent into the slums to clean them up and eliminate the risk of violence and drugs before he gets there. Meanwhile the team captain Nascimento is trying to find a suitable man to replace him after he quits to look after his wife and soon-to-be-born son.

Despite a frantic nature in several scenes, the film feels very in control. You can just tell that the director knew exactly what he was doing as far as handling the scenes goes, especially the action-oriented ones. We jump right into the action with a “funk party” (as the movie describes it) and a shoot-out between the drug dealers and the cops. It makes no bones about what it’s going to be like for the rest of the runtime; it lays its cards plainly on the table for you to see, and for that I applaud it. It doesn’t try to mask itself as something it’s not but rather reveals its true colours from the get-go and doesn’t disappoint on the grade-A level it promises.

Comparisons to City of God, which I think is one of the greatest films of all time, are inevitable, the first of which is in terms of its style. The same frantic, quick edits are employed here although not quite to the same extent. It’s done in such a way that it quickly cuts to various things seemingly all at once, but it doesn’t keep the viewer from becoming engrossed nor does it prevent one from being able to tell what’s going on. It’s in the action scenes that these editing techniques are employed and it's part of the reason they are so engrossing and exciting.

Although frantic and with quick-cut edits it feels very stately, unlike City of God. Instead of constantly being in the style of that film where it’s pretty much always flashy and frantic, Tropa de Elite has moments where the camera is quite still and there are intriguing and interesting conversations going which seem to be accentuated a lot more in this film.

Where the two films differ the most is in their main storylines. City of God was in depth with the actual drug dealers and dealing and how the people in the slums have to live whereas this deals with the law enforcement side of things and tackles the problem from the police perspective. The two films act as two sides of the same coin, complementing and contrasting with one another.

Wagner Moura, the actor who plays the main character of the elite squad team leader, has a great presence about him. He’s physically believable as the leader of this extremely tough and strong task force and equally believable in the scenes at home with his wife. It’s quite rare to find a film which has lots of elements working simultaneously being pulled off even remotely well.

Not only is this is a fun film to watch, down to its action/shoot-out sequences in particular, there’s also a lot more to it, such as strong messages about abuse of power and being honest, and just all around excellent technical filmmaking in almost all areas.

Tropa de Elite just goes to prove how raw, visceral, and real a non-documentary film can be. The action/shoot-out sequences are immensely engrossing and exciting, with you almost feeling every bullet and every body slamming to the floor. And the whole thing feels like it’s in the hands of someone who actually knows what they’re doing. This is this year’s City of God, and to even mention another film in the same sentence as that is a massive compliment on its own.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil has long been known as a city precariously balanced on the edge of chaos. A city of vibrant culture and life, it is also one of the most dangerous cities in the world. The majority of its population lives in one of 70 slums, known as favelas, which are ruled by violent drug gangs. These heavily armed gangs routinely engage in pitched gun battles with the police, with the city’s residents often caught in the crossfire.

With the police force under funded, under equipped and rife with corruption, the drug gangs pretty much have their way within the confines of the favelas and frequently outgun the police when fighting spills over into the city proper. The situation is bad enough that the government created a special paramilitary force known as BOPE (Battalion for Special Police Operations) charged with dealing with the drug gangs. With their symbol being a skull flanked by crossed swords and a pistol, it’s no secret what these guys are about. The new film “Tropa de Elite” (”Elite Squad”) spotlights BOPE in a way the Brazilian government would probably rather it didn’t.

Written by Rodrigo Pimentel, a 12 year veteran of BOPE himself, “Tropa de Elite” is a grim, frequently shocking, but ultimately evenhanded critique of the cycle of violence that engulfs Rio. The film focuses on Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura, “Carandiru”), a hard-nosed squad commander in BOPE. With the birth of his first child only weeks away, Nascimento is struggling to find the reasons to keep putting his life on the line every day at work. He finally hatches a plan to find a replacement for his position so that he can quit the force.

This brings us to a parallel plot thread concerning two young police cadets - Neto, a gung-ho trigger happy thug and Matias, a fevela resident who attends law school on the side - whom Nacimento marks as his potential replacements. The problem is that he sees the qualities he wants in each man, but not enough of them in either one. However, several incursions into the favelas to clean them out ahead of a visit by the Pope shape the men in unexpected and tragic ways.

Filmed in a hand-held Cinéma-vérité style, “Tropa de Elite” is a fast paced and engaging film. It can almost be called a kind of the anti-”City of God,” following the police rather than the criminals. It employs a similar episodic narrative structure (complete with chapter breaks) and deadpan narration that keeps the energy high and the story moving forward. And like “City of God,” it doesn’t shy away from showing the grim realities of the conflict between the police and drug gangs. It offers a scathing portrayal of the corruption that is engrained in The System which prevents the wheels of justice from turning.

Each division commander has his own scam going, be it collecting protection money from the local strip clubs or selling confiscated guns back to the drug gangs. There’s even a hilarious sequence where each division keeps moving the dead bodies from a gang shoot-out to another division’s jurisdiction so their field reports look better. However, despite BOPE claiming to only want uncorrupted officers amongst its ranks, the film shows them routinely engaging in tactics ranging from torture to out and out murder. But the film does not demonize BOPE for its heavy-handed tactics. Rather, it calls attention to the impossible situation Brazilian society has painted itself into. The streets are controlled by the drug gangs through violence of such a level that the only conceivable way to combat it is through greater violence. Unfortunately, this leaves the average citizen to deal with the consequences.

“Tropa de Elite” was a sensation in Brazil before it was even released in theaters thanks to it ironically falling victim to the rampant crime it criticizes. A rough cut of the film was stolen from the editing studio and bootleg DVDs flooded the usual channels. The film has touched a nerve among Brazilians. With the country still struggling to come to terms with its past and recent history of paramilitary death squads, it has garnered praise and criticism in equal measure from all parts of society. The government, naturally, has condemned the film’s position that BOPE operates outside the law, with the government condoning torture and murder as routine investigative practices (after all, ‘torture’ is no worse than Fraternity hazing, right?). However, the citizenry, particularly the residents of the favelas, have praised the film as painfully truthful. Reality is probably somewhere in between, but with the film’s script writer being a former member of BOPE, I’m inclined to think it’s pretty ugly.

“Tropa de Elite” is a harsh and frequently painful film to watch, but its unflinching portrayal of Rio’s struggles is fascinating. While its style is perhaps too slavishly reliant on Tarantino-esque structuring, it’s not as convoluted as other films of this type, such as the works of Alejandro González Iñárritu. The pseudo-documentary style camera work does get a bit hyperactive at times, but thankfully doesn’t make viewing the film a vertiginous experience. Overall, this is a thoughtful, insightful and frequently darkly funny film, but the impact of its social commentary is very real.

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