Elite Squad

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David Prichard/The Weinstein Company
José Padilha/Brazil 2007

At last month’s Berlin International Film Festival, the press screening of José Padilha’s much-hyped first feature film Elite Squad started, and – for this critic – concluded inauspiciously. Minutes before the screening commenced, festival organizers announced that the Brazilian film would only be shown with German subtitles. For those – like myself and probably the majority of the several hundreds critics assembled – with limited German and non-existent Portuguese, an accompanying audio version of the film’s soundtrack in English was available in the lobby. Picture the scene: There followed the journalistic “bun fight” of the century to ensure speedy procurement of said headphones as the film reels began to roll. It then took the first 15 minutes of the film to get the apparatus to function properly. Later that day, one journo friend quipped sardonically that it didn’t really matter in which language you watched this gangland tragedy as plot, dialogue and character were as clichéd as an averagely bad soap opera.

Simply put, Padilha’s film explores an elite police squad’s battle against the drug barons in the favelas of Rio de Janiero. More precisely, the story is told through the eyes (and voiceover) of “elite squad” captain, Nascimento (Wagner Moura), anxious to leave the force as the years take their toll on his physical and psychological well-being, and his wife is about to give birth to their first child. Nascimento has a few problems though, one of them being his temper and some worryingly psychopathic tendencies when face-to-face with the favelas hardcore criminals, the other being his pressing need to find a suitably tough successor to fill his overtaxed shoes. Two likely candidates appear one night at a police raid in the favela, in the form of rookie cops Neto (Caio Junqueira) and Matias (André Ramiro) who vie with each other to be selected for the toughest squad in town.

In Brazil, Elite Squad has broken audience records, possibly due to its highly controversial nature. Not only is the film’s content controversial, but it has been marinading in controversy ever since the birth of Padilha’s idea. Originally, Padilha was set to make a documentary on this theme, to follow up on the success of his former documentary Bus 174. However, after only a few days of preparation for the new documentary, the crew realized that it was simply too dangerous to go into the favelas – for real – with this subject matter. Hence, the decision to turn it over to fiction. Elite Squad was also plagued with problems throughout the shoot, including the theft of filming equipment and a kidnapping in the Chapéu Mangueira favela while the cast and crew were shooting there. The film was leaked in pirate version months before its official release and in Padilha’s native Brazil, has ignited great debate regarding drug crime and the role of the authorities etc. It is disappointing to report therefore that despite all the excitement and controversy surrounding the making of the film, the end result, Golden Bear aside, is just not that interesting or assured.

The key problem with Elite Squad is that it is not sure what it is trying to say and this critic, for one, believes that you cannot make a film about such a crucial socio-political – even ethical – subject without clarity and conviction. For sure, Elite Squad shows the clashes between the diverse groups in this particular section of Brazilian society: the elite squad cops themselves, the official police department, junkies, dealers, ordinary favela dwellers, students, NGO workers, etc.; but there is no argument as such. It is not afraid either to show the squad resorting to torture and arbitrary killings, revealing them to be as bad as the drug barons, but the film gives us no guidance as to what to make of this. Padilha said of his own work: “The film doesn’t take sides. It just puts everyday stories out there in the open for people to reflect upon.” This standpoint would probably have been adequate enough, if Padilha’s film were showing us something never before seen or showing it in a radically new way. Unfortunately, neither is true. Padilha argues that his film is original because it takes its perspective as that of the elite squad – not from the marginalized point of view of the criminals, for example. This is indeed a point in film’s favor, but it is hardly innovative, and we witness nothing in this film that is any better than an episode of NYPD Blue. In fact the latter is usually less gratuitously violent and a darn sight more compelling.

It is difficult to write about Elite Squad without making comparisons to critically-acclaimed, City of God (2002), another favela-based, controversial Brazilian movie. Although City of God’s author Braulio Mantovani had a hand in writing Elite Squad, it is more precise to say he had a hand in re-writing it and, by all accounts, bringing some order to the original chaos. The thought of the mess it must have been in before his arrival is enough to make me want to take up hard drugs!? Joking aside, the two films actually have little in common, except perhaps the amount of violence depicted. City of God is a much rawer representation of desperate lives, focusing on kids in particular, yet because it is stylized rather than playing to cliché it has the ability to shock and deliver a much more powerful message than Elite Squad can.

Despite a couple of tensely staged raids on the favelas by the squad, Elite Squad is pretty humdrum and you’ll have seen it all before, a hundred plus times. Two easy-to-hand examples of the film’s clichéd and melodramatic style are: firstly, in the plot involving Maria (Fernanda Machado) a pretty female student working in the favela’s NGO who falls for black, wannabe elite cop, Matias. The hurt when she finds out Matias is working undercover and the shunning by her fellow students of Matias at a party are reminiscent of an episode of Beverly Hills, 90210! Capt. Nascimento, with the constant scowl of a man about to spontaneously combust is also overplayed. And then there is the boot camp where Neto and Matias fight it out to the last for pole position in the squad. Excuse the pun but this sequence was so camped up, it brought to mind fleeting memories of Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin (1980) and was trying to conjure the relentless pre-Nam training depicted so brilliantly in Full Metal Jacket (1987), but failed.

Elite Squad is also fraught with some perplexing inconsistencies, which add to its overall incoherence. It is set in 1997 but this fact is irrelevant. Apart from a certain absence of widespread Internet and mobile phone use, it is impossible to tell the year. One of the reasons the pressure is on Nascimento and his men is that the Pope is coming to Rio for a state visit and they need to clean up the favelas for his security. The papal visit is mentioned a couple of times in the film, but thereafter completely dropped from the plot, which makes us question the purpose it served in the first place. One gets the impression that Padilha added these details to the piece to try to give it a richer context but by failing to follow up on them, heightens the viewers confusion. Also, at one point, Matias and Neto are told to go undercover as mechanics in a local garage but we do not know nor find out why.

There is much, in fact, I failed to understand about Elite Squad, not least it’s Golden Bear award. No doubt the film was tough to make and a courageous effort on the part of its filmmakers, cast and backers. But unlike Costa-Gavras at the head of the Berlinale jury this year, I do not think that effort expended should be the benchmark in judging the merit of a film. However good intentioned, Elite Squad is a bad film. But perhaps I am out of sync. Perhaps the English-language headphones are playing up, still.

© 2008 Maxine Harfield. All rights reserved.

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