Director: Jos? Padilha
Starring: Wagner Moura, Caio Junqueria, Andr? Ramiro
UK Release date: 8 August 2008
Certificate: 18 (118 mins)
Six years ago the masterful Brazilian film Cidade de Deus (City of God) provided international audiences with a rare insight into life inside the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro. Initially constructed by the city to isolate the poor from the city centre, the favelas came to be ruled by young gun-toting drug gangs. Their lethal turf wars meant that city police rarely entered their territories and residents were lucky if they reached the age of twenty. Though the film was visually inventive and highly stylised, the story, told from the point of view of the young gangsters, was never less than totally convincing.
The brutal and cynical Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad), winner of the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin film festival, deliberately trades on the reputation of the former film. Directed by the promising documentary-maker José Padilha, the film’s publicity material points out that both films share a co-writer (Braulio Mantovani.) This might lead us to expect that the new film inhabits the same world and breathes the same air.
Not so. Tropa de Elite is set in the same favelas but the story is told from the point of view of the police – or rather the BOPE, an elite unit of paramilitaries that is feared by the regular corrupt police. The unit, known as the “skulls” (their emblem resembles a comic-book style skull) are a law unto themselves, answerable to no one. With set jaws and clenched teeth, these black-clad stormtroopers deliver on-the-spot justice from the barrels of their weapons and gratuitously torture hapless victims in broad daylight. There is no element of boredom, humour or conventional film characterisation as these men carry out their grim work. The men are driven, as only two-dimensional characters can be driven.
If I sound less than convinced by the BOPE crew this is because they seem little more than two-dimensional ciphers and their sadistic violence has something of a comic book element to it. Reminding one of Judge Dredd, their heavy-handed brutality is out of all proportion to the crimes they are fighting (the drug pushers of the favelas seem to handle nothing larger than a bag or two of cocaine or marijuana.) Although purported to be based on the autobiography of a BOPE member, the film is some way from being entirely credible.
This is a pity, but it is unfortunately only one of the problems with Tropa de Elite.
The story-telling is slipshod. The first half is cluttered and unclear and is hampered by an annoying voiceover from the bullish BOPE captain (Walter Mouro) that tells us how to interpret every scene and every shot. When we first meet the two rookie cops (Caio Junqueria, André Ramiro) whose stories we are to follow, the voiceover immediately tells us that one is all brains, the other all heart, and that one of these men must be chosen as the captain’s successor. Couldn’t the writers have scattered such character and plot exposition over a few scenes so that we might learn this stuff for ourselves? There are precious few scenes in the film in which we are allowed to watch characters interact without the interference of the dreaded voiceover.
One wonders whether this device was utilised because the director’s background was in documentary, or whether it was an afterthought – added in post-production after preview audiences emerged confused by the cluttered storyline.
The pretext for the plot is a visit to Rio in 1997 by Pope John Paul II. The Holy Father has announced he wants to stay close to the favelas rather than stay at the bishop’s palace in the city, and it is the BOPE’s mission to make the slums safe for the Pope. This pretext appears to be irrelevant. The daily war with the gangs predates the Pope’s visit and will grind on with the same intensity after he leaves. Nor is it explained why the marijuana dealers would want to harm the Pope. It is unfortunate that the film seems to sneer at the late Pope’s naivety in wanting to be closer to the poor.
Though the film looks moodily atmospheric and has a few good set pieces (Padilha's strengths are in handling crowd scenes and staging gun battles), it is hampered by shallow characterisation and – more worryingly – by a cynical glorification of sadistic paramilitary violence. The award of the Golden Bear from the Berlin festival jury has probably given Tropa de Elite a wider audience than it deserves.
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