Monday, 25 August 2008

elite squad (d. jose padilha, w. andre batista, braulio mantovani)

Elite Squad deals with the way in which the police attempt to tackle the drugs war in Rio's favelas. The film was created out of Padilha's original project, which was to create a documentary about BOPA, the elite Brazilian anti-narcotic squad, which some see as a paramilitary unit. Elite Squad was the most expensive feature ever made in Brazil. It has provoked national debate, commercial success and international acclaim.

Padilha has quite a few axes to grind. He wants his audience to understand who the officers of BOPA are, how they work, and why they might be necessary. He also wants middle class Brazilian drug users to take stock of the part they play in their country's drug war, which is by and large concealed in the no-go favelas. Finally he wants, and succeeds, in making these issues accessible and cinematic.

Elite Squad, in spite of its acknowledged intellectual perspective, is a high octane piece of cinema making. On the one hand, Padilha and his team capture the vivid, restless energy of the favelas; the comical corruption of the Rio police force, and the violent excesses of the drug war. On the other hand, he succeeds in slipping in a sequence where one of his three principle protagonists, the nerdish, black law student, Matias, gives a succinct appraisal of Foucault's position on the mechanisms of power within society.

Padilha's film suggests that you can have it all. It is possible to make intelligent, 'socially conscious', commercial, dramatic cinema. All that's required is the verve and ambition to pull it off. The fact that the film caused such a stir within Brazil would no doubt appeal to Foucault himself. For so long the holy grail of politically minded artists has been the creation of a work of art which might have some influence on society. Illegally downloaded copies of Padilha's film were doing the rounds long before it opened. The director found himself accused of making a fascist film, hero-worshipping BOPA, whilst being sued by BOPA for defamation at the same time.

One of the fascinating aspects of the movie is the way in which it finds the line that exists between documentary and fiction. Padilha realised that there was no way he was going to be allowed to film the things he'd been told occurred in real life. BOPA's habit of torturing suspects and summarily executing others was never going to be captured in a documentary. Neither were the antics of the drugs lords, nor, in all likelihood, the extent to which psychological stress affected BOPA's members. For all the film's violence, the scene where Captain Nascimiento walks into his home and, out of the blue, shouts at his wife that he runs the show, remains one of the most powerful. Wagner Moura, who plays Nascimiento, has a passing resemblance to Ray Liotta in Goodfellas. His narration, which holds the film together as it tells the story of how he came to select one of Matias or his friend Neto to succeed him in his job, giving him a get-out clause to spend more time with his family, also echoes Liotta's in Scorcese's film.

Elite Squad is one of the rare films that succeeds in emulating Scorcese's sinuous, energetic style of film-making. It gives evidence of a director who's brazen enough to believe he can seize hold of the big issues affecting his society, then describe them in a way that's so gripping, people will want to go and see the film. Thereby having to face issues they would usually run a mile from. This is anti-escapism cinema, executed with remarkable, compelling flair.

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