Sunday, November 16, 2008

ELITE SQUAD (Tropa de Elite - Brazil, 2007)

Reportedly the most popular Brazilian film ever, and a controversial winner at this year's Berlin Film Festival, Tropa de Elite has been accused of a fascist tendency, as is just about any film that appears to applaud extreme measures against criminals. I usually regard that as an absurd charge, especially when lone-wolf vigilantes are called fascists -- since when have you ever heard of lone-wolf fascists? How well would the charge stick this time? I determined to find out by checking out the DVD.

First, here's an attempt to sell the film to the English market.

This trailer gives a somewhat wrong impression of the story. Take a look at the Brazilian trailer and you'll notice a different emphasis even if you can't follow the Portuguese.

The point of contention in determining whether Tropa de Elite is a "fascist" film is its attitude toward its protagonists. If anything, the Anglo trailer suggests a more "fascist" film since it presents the movie unambiguously as a story of heroes trying to clean up the system. The movie itself is more ambivalent.

The movie opens on the night of a street party in a Brazilian slum in 1997. A narrator explains that Rio de Janiero has 700 slums infested with gangs that own military-quality ordinance. Outmanned and outgunned, most cops content themselves with taking bribes and looking the other way. The narrator explains: "Honesty isn't part of the game. When honest cops go into the streets, bad shit usually happens." We see some about to happen. Two snipers look like they're about to shoot a cop. After they fire, chaos breaks out, but before it can resolve itself, the title card comes up, and we flash back six months.

The narrator is Capt. Nascimento, who's contemplating retirement from the BOPE, our titular Elite Squad. Numbering only 100 men, they are reputedly incorruptible and ruthless, as much the enemies of corrupt cops as of the gangs of the slums. They sport a death's-head logo and use "Skulls" as a nickname and battle cry.

The two snipers from six months later are introduced as rookie officers Neto and Matias. Neto is a hothead, Matias a straight-arrow who wants to be a lawyer. He attends college classes and hooks up with classmates in an NGO operating in one of the slums -- as can only be done with the consent of the gangs. Matias' storyline gives ammunition to critics who want to question the movie's political agenda. He's shown rebelling against the conventional wisdom of the classroom, where Foucault-reading potheads parrot the lefty line that cops are nothing but corrupt instruments of plunder and oppression. During a classroom discussion, he tells his peers (who don't know he's a cop) that "sometimes there has to be repression" and that they've been brainwashed by the news media. Writer-director Jose Padilha seems contemptuous toward the students, who're portrayed as naive irresponsible elitists whose addictions empower the slum gangs.

Neto is assigned to a motor pool and grows increasingly frustrated by the poverty of the department, which has to cannibalize newer cars to fix older ones. He and Matias are friends from childhood, and as they learn about the corruption throughout the force, they hatch a plan to steal some payoff money to buy parts for the cars. They discussed this with another cop who ultimately didn't take part in their scheme, but looks likely to get blamed forward. Now we're back to the beginning of the picture, and we learn that Neto and Matias are trying to prevent the other cop's assassination. They emerge with honor from the fracas, and enter the BOPE training program.

It isn't until the film's halfway over that we get the brutal boot-camp sequences that usually come earlier in such a movie. Capt. Nascimento explains that only five out of every 100 trainees makes it through. The object is to learn who won't crack under pressure. Nascimento is especially interested in this class because he wants one of them to replace him. His wife's having a baby and is pressuring him to quit the squad. All this is happening in the middle of a campaign to clean out a particular slum near where the Pope plans to stay during a visit to Rio. The training involves mass beatings and gross-out ordeals such as having to eat slop off the ground in only ten seconds. When the grass isn't licked clean in that time, one unlucky cop is ordered to eat all that remains. When he pukes upon it, everybody has to join back in the repast. Eight men make it out of the first round, including Neto and Matias.

Meanwhile, a newspaper photo showing Matias at the scene of the slum battle outs him as a cop for his college buddies and their gang patron, Baiano. He plans to ambush Matias when the good cop meets a slum kid to give him a pair of glasses, but Neto ends up going instead. Neto screwed up during the final training exercise, a live slum raid, but has done well since then, killing 30 people in one week as part of the ongoing "Operation Holiness." This avails him not, as Baiano's men fatally wound him. Upon learning from a tattoo that he's BOPE, Baiano freaks out, since he understands that the Elite Squad will take ruthless vengeance on all involved. He takes out his anger on some college kids, one of whom is necklaced, trapped in tires like a Michelin Man and set ablaze, in the movie's most extreme sequence.

Baiano knows his enemy. Matias has had enough of the "stupid potheads" who are mourning the college kids but not his friend Neto. He wades into a memorial march and starts punching people out and pretty much kisses off Maria, his onetime girlfriend. He joins the manhunt for Baiano, in which torture is a routine investigative tool. Baiano is finally tracked down for a brief rooftop chase that leads to Matias' final test. Nascimento, who first envisioned Neto as his successor, will put it on Matias if he can execute Baiano in cold blood (in the face optional). But it's already too late for Nascimento. He threw a fit at home after Neto's death, provoking his wife to leave him.

So it's a hard knock life for the Tropa de Elite. There aren't happy endings for anyone. Nascimento's life is ruined, Neto is dead, and Matias appears to have given up his ideals of the rule of law. None of them are made heroes for their trouble, and in the end, how much have they accomplished? They made a dent in one slum. There's damned little of the glory that true fascists would heap upon such men. If anything, Padilha seems to see them as a symptom of the disease of massive inequality, rather than a cure. They're part of an overall brutalization of society, not really an attempt to reverse it. Audiences may applaud Matias' final act -- I don't know if they did -- but you could just as easily regard it as a tragic ending, given his original aspirations. If fascism requires a leader or group for people to rally around, neither Nascimento nor his Squad fits the bill, and I think that's the way the filmmakers meant it.

I enjoyed Tropa de Elite, but on the first viewing that's due more to its revelations of the breadth of corruption in Rio than its aesthetic qualities. Padilha's work strikes me as appropriately low-tech and gritty for a subject that should be handled in a realist style. It's a fair companion piece to City of God, the film that put Brazilian crime on the movie map. The films share a writer, Braulio Mantovani, who appears to be a key figure in the developing Brazilian crime genre. Padhila, who also made Bus 174, will be one too if Hollywood doesn't poach him soon. But the Internet Movie Database tells me that he's set to direct Don Cheadle in a film due in 2010.

The American DVD is a no-frills affair, the only extras being three trailers (The Aura, Chronicle of an Escape, and Days of Glory). I watched it on a ten-year old TV, so I can't make meaningful judgements about picture quality, but it's at least a serviceable widescreen edition. You can watch it in the original Portugese or an American dub. I opted for the original but sampled the dub. It's not terrible but the voices all sound generically American, which kills the film's authenticity. Fans of international crime or cop cinema ought to like it

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