Tropa de Elite

Elite Squad 1 and 2 are political action movies from Brazil directed by Joseph Padilho, who made a really good and important documentary in Brazil about a bus hijacking crisis that got even more fucked up due to the media clusterfuck surrounding it. The Tropa films are fictional, however, and Padilho wrote the movies with another dude, Braulio Mantovani, who wrote City of God. Unlike City of God, the Elite Squad movies are not feel-good comedies.

Possibly because the film is in another language, many American film critics didn’t understand what the movies were about. For example, in America we have our own Tropa de Elite, called The Wire, of which we are quite proud and consider to be an Important and Educational Work. Elite Squad is basically considered an awesomely gritty action saga with political pretensions and fascist undertones.

The first allegation is inarguable. All you have to do is put Elite Squad 1 alongside City of God; same writer, similar dialog/situations, but City of God is a fucking cartoon compared to this, everything made to look pretty and Cinematic. Elite Squad takes more of a guerilla documentarian perspective, what the main character from City of God starting doing when he grew up. We could talk all day about the merits and obnoxious aspects of the handheld camera, suffice to say I think there’s a time and a place for it, and running through the favelas with bullets whizzing by is one of them.

Political pretensions? Gosh, people can be hard to relate to sometimes. Does The Wire “pretend” to have politics? Please.

It’s best addressed, I suppose, by attempting to refute the various levels at which people claim the movie is fascist.

FASCIST THEORY 1: The movie portrays two opposing viewpoints. Viewpoint A states that the brutality with which the BOPE, the police organization in question, conducts law enforcement is a major contributing factor to the problem of crime and violence in Brazil. Viewpoint B is of course that of the fascist cops themselves, who say, “What the fuck, we are at war, you pussy liberals don’t know shit!” According to Theory 1, the movies tell you that the liberals are wrong and the fascist cops are correct. For example one of the BOPE cadets is also in college, and has to listen to all these liberal kids whine about police corruption. Meanwhile he knows full well, because he’s hung out with them and seen them do it, that these same kids are going into the favelas and buying weed, paying for the system of drug cartels to operate, leaving BOPE no choice but to go in and murder the dealers. He tells them so, and it’s this underdog having the balls to speak out against the majority thing.

Fortunately most people realize that this is bullshit. It’s not like the BOPE officers have a considered opinion about approaching the drug war through legalization, rehabilitation, and other forms of social reform. It’s just that, things being as they are AT THE MOMENT, there are all these drug dealers routinely murdering children in the favelas, and BOPE soldiers have this job wherein they are supposed to go into said favelas and engage in guerilla warfare with them. This obviously sucks. The movie does not propose that this is an ideal situation. For one thing, it has been thoroughly established in culture at large that war is this great big pile of dehumanizing shit. I could name a few examples where a country was at war with another country, and the soldiers from both countries did really bad things to one another. But there are no two countries here, it is people from Brazil and more people from Brazil. So please, have some appreciation that this is a shitty circumstance.

When we watch The Hurt Locker, we do not expect Jeremy Renner to be an okay guy. We expect him to be all psychologically fucked up, and when the movie portrays him to be all psychologically fucked up, we go “man, what an honest and gut-wrenching portrayal of a person and of war.” We empathize first and foremost that he has to abandon some aspect of his humanity because the situation he goes into every day is so thorough of a mindfuck. Well I gotta tell you I think these BOPE guys’ situation is comparable, I don’t mean to sound fascist.

FASCIST THEORY 2: So most people get that it’s not as simple as the liberals are wrong and the fascists are right. It’s really the System that’s the problem, this multi-headed beast full of institutions that might have been able to solve said problem, but had, in some aspect, a vested interested in maintaining the status quo. So in both movies our narrator/Pope of BOPE, Roberto Nascimiento, finally takes the law into his own hands. FUCK the System, right? The System was fascist so you gotta rise up against it. Well, of course, vigilantism is just answering fascism with more fascism right? Setting up your own dictatorship in place of another. So this more sophisticated argument proposes that these movies want to be serious political treatises, but in resorting to these crowd-pleasing, Dirty Harry antics, they reveal their true colors. They are too adolescent to make a serious political statement, falsely locating an answer to these problems in Nascimiento’s he-man violence.

Well you would have a case, my friends, except it’s not like these films have happy endings. It’s not as if Nascimiento is rewarded for saying, “institute THIS! [blam blam blam].” It’s just that, well, the movie got to you I suppose. You came to a point where you were 100% behind Nascimiento, but since you would never support fascim yourself it must be the movie, right?

Although embracing his inner Dirty Harry does have its sense of archetypal payoff, you gotta look at the facts. He doesn’t accomplish anything, its just the latest in a long line of futile gestures. Capping a dealer is just creating a job vacancy, and same with destroying the careers of a few corrupt politicians. In Squad 2, he wipes out the entire trafficking infrastructure of Rio, and an even more nefarious system immediately springs up in its place, one that is much more difficult to fight against because society has not yet articulated the same abhorrence for it that they have for the drug trade. I think you can easily infer (if, from nothing else, the fact that he explicitly says so in the closing voice over) that similar things happened at the end of the second film.

So what’s the deal guys? Why you gotta be culturalist against Brazil? This is a thoroughly sophisticated, challenging work, politically rewarding in that it rigorously explores the situation and doesn’t fabricate a solution.


~ by renfield on February 17, 2012.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: