Brazil’s Most Popular Film Is About Militarized Police
‘Elite Squad’ is a violent masterpiece
The militarization of America’s police is a big deal. The Pentagon’s “1033 program” has allowed local cops unprecedented access to deadly military equipment. The results have been … unpleasant.
Cops on high school campuses in Texas almost toted assault rifles. Armored vehicles tear up small-town streets. People die. Riots follow. It feels like a dangerous new era in the United States.
By contrast, Brazil has struggled with an aggressive and militarized police force for decades. It’s also the subject of the country’s most popular movie.
Elite Squad tells the story of a Capt. Roberto Nascimento, a member of Brazil’s Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais. BOPE is an elite force that patrols Rio De Janeiro.
Imagine American special forces going to war with drug dealers in Chicago. BOPE operates like that every day.
The 2007 film is based on a popular book with the same title. A psychologist and two former BOPE members wrote their fictionalized account of high-stakes policing based on hours of interviews with real-life cops.
The film adaptation is terribly disturbing—and, we must admit, pretty damned entertaining.
Brazil is awfully corrupt. According to Nascimento, a Brazilian police officer has only a few options. Most exploit a broken system for profit. Others turn a blind eye to their fellow officers’ crimes.
A small group opposes corruption. Those special few congregate in the BOPE.
The film focuses on Nascimento’s attempt to find his replacement. He’s having a child and his wife wants him off the street. His best options are Neto and André, childhood friends who joined the police together.
Neto is headstrong and brave. André is brilliant and compassionate. Together, they would make the perfect officer, but Nascimento must choose between them.
Nascimento narrates the film and his explanations of the “Brazilian system” make the movie and its politics easy to digest for foreign audiences. The action is incredible, brutal and matter-of-fact.
BOPE will do whatever it takes to complete its mission. Often, that means intimidation, torture and killing. To Nascimento, BOPE and the drug dealers are at war for Rio De Janeiro.
Director José Padilha’s camera stays tight on the bodies of the Elite Squad, evoking the tense claustrophobia of Brazil’s favelas. Then the camera zooms into the air, revealing the entire sprawling city.
Personal violence in the impersonal city.
The film’s success led to a sequel in 2010—Elite Squad: Enemy Within. It was more popular than the first film and Hollywood came calling. Padilha directed the American reboot of Robocop. Which is one of the reasons the new one is so much fun.
Elite Squad is Padilha’s masterpiece. The film is more than just an action movie or a bland cop thriller. It tackles Brazil’s class divisions, social ills, violent cops, clueless middle class and broken political system.
It’s a complicated backdrop for a movie that works because of the characters. Elite Squad’s real strength is the people inhabiting the world. They’re all deeply flawed and complex.
It’s a movie about naive college kids, vile drug dealers, good cops and bad cops. It’s a movie about Brazil.