"Tropa de Elite" isn't merely one more Brazilian film on urban violence; it's a cathartic socio-cultural phenomenon of almost unprecedented proportions in Brazil, the omnipresent theme on TV talk shows, newspapers articles, bars and dinner tables. Prior to its theatrical release this October, "Tropa" was seen by an estimated record 11 million people who bought pirate DVD copies or illegally downloaded it on the net (the biggest Brazilian box-office success in the last 25 years was "2 Filhos de Francisco" with 5,5 million tickets sold).
The reaction is passionately polarized: some call it the best Brazilian movie since "City of God" -- a definite influence here, in the cinematography, editing and screenplay structure, with an omniscient narrator and use of mixed chronology -- exposing the endemic corruption of Rio de Janeiro's police force and the "unorthodox" methods used by BOPE (the self-called "incorruptible" elite squad of Rio's military police force, created in 1978 and inspired by the U.S. SWAT) that include torture and shoot-first-ask-later modus operandi in the ultra-violent, ever-growing drug war in Rio's favelas. Others have publicly attacked it as fascist in its glorification of BOPE, its sadistic depiction of torture and the reductionist, simple-minded vision of the complex issues involving violence/ drugs/police corruption in Rio.
Director José Padilha and co-writer Rodrigo Pimentel (a former BOPE captain who left the squad for disagreeing with its praxis) had collaborated in the extraordinary "Bus 174", a multi-faceted documentary on Rio's violence. In "Tropa", they controversially chose to give us a deliberately biased vision of the problem: from the start we're stuck with one man, the overstressed, rebellious, self-righteous Capt Nascimento (Wagner Moura) in his journey into becoming a psychopathic sadist and hot-blooded killer, who believes drug traffic is caused by the druggie middle-class bourgeoisie (as if the poor didn't do drugs!) and claims the solution is to kill all traffickers. To Nascimento, corruption is abominable; torture isn't.
Nascimento is the film's absolute protagonist, narrator, commentator and "truth-puker". In his mind, all non-elite policemen are corrupt and incompetent, all charity NGOs in the favelas are cover-up fraudulent enterprises, all college students are useless double-faced potheads, and legal procedures are an inefficient waste of time. He's nearer to the traffickers' violent, revenge-based, lawless ethics than he's ever able to realize.
"There's nothing wrong with shooting people if you shoot the right people", used to say Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry back in the 1970s, and it could well be Capt. Nascimento's motto. He's a vigilante in uniform, in the tradition of the executioners played by Eastwood, Bronson, Stallone and 24 Hours' Jack Bauer; he's the heir to the 1970s' Brazilian military regime know-how on torture. Yet, the film tries hard at "humanizing" Nascimento: his wife's pregnant, his marriage falters, he's moved to tears by the suffering of a mother who lost her son in the traffic war, he's in medication for his panic attacks. AND he's trying to save the POPE's life, no less!
All the other characters are just rough sketches or caricatures. The one character who might be the classical "narrator/observer" (like Buscapé/Rocket in "City of God") is the idealist, Foucault-reading aspiring police officer Mathias (though it's hard to believe an aspiring officer could afford to attend Rio's most expensive law school). But Mathias, too, is finally co-opted by the brainwashing "Full-Metal-Jacket"-like BOPE training that changes him into an amoral beast fueled with rage.
Padilha says he wanted to portray Nascimento as a monster, and that audiences who are hailing Nascimento as a "hero" and BOPE as a "model" institution have caught him by surprise -- oh, really? Padilha is probably being sarcastic, naive or silly: everybody knows movie vigilante cops have been consistently idolized the world over (and co- writer Pimentel has publicly disagreed, stating the "Tropa" is clearly pro-BOPE). The graphic, sadistic scenes of torture -- supposedly meant to inspire disgust -- make the delight of a large vigilante-minded part of the audience. And Wagner Moura's extraordinary, scary performance as Nascimento is unsettling: we can't dismiss him as a stupid fascist the way we dismissed inarticulate stiffs like Bronson, Seagal or Stallone. The fact is that there's now a BOPE cult-following, with BOPE's logo (a skull pierced by pistols and knives) reproduced on t-shirts and underwear, BOPE officers being cheered in the streets in their armored "glory", and young kids (from all social classes) mimicking the film's "bag-in-the-head torture" as a new bullying style.
Militarists and pacifists will hardly change sides after the watching the film; militarists will have multiple orgasms and pacifists will cringe in horror. The filmmakers aren't interested in seriously discussing the drug issue (legalization is not even mentioned as an option). Nor in exposing Rio's drug traffic's multi-fingered interconnections, the zillion-dollar, highly organized international business involving farmers, money-washing executives, chemistry labs, gun-runners, bankers, politicians, accountants, lawyers, transport systems, etc. Nor in showing the real victims: the majority of the favela inhabitants, who aren't involved in the drug business but have to live under its rules, mere "extras" whose fate (in movies and in real life) is to be used, humiliated, segregated or, worse, wounded/killed by random bullets from BOTH policemen and traffickers.
"Tropa" is a must-see film, but it's misleading and entrapping: by opting for an "open", "what would YOU do?" ending (probably influenced by the breathtaking finale of "Paradise Now"), the filmmakers demands us to take sides about a very, VERY complex issue they've shown us only ONE angle of. "Tropa" is cinematically dazzling, but so physically and ideologically nauseating you'll need an antidote -- be sure to also watch the faceted, influential documentary "Notícias de uma Guerra Particular" and be aware of many other angles to a terrible reality that plagues not only Rio, but most of Third World's chaotic, no-man's-land, way out-of- control big cities.
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