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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » October 8, 2008
The world of movies
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The Elite Squad
October 8, 2008   
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Poverty-stricken districts of Latin American megalopolises have captured the imagination of filmmakers over the last few years as locations to shoot violent screenplays. Look no further than Fernando Meirelles's City of God (2002), a story of gang warfare in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro, which garnered four Oscar nominations, or Rodrigo Plá's La Zona (2007), set in Mexico City.

This fascination with violence amid squalor also paid off for Brazilian director José Padilha when his The Elite Squad (2007) won the Golden Bear at this year's Berlin International Film Festival.

The Elite Squad is a dark and brutal police drama set in the slums outside Rio de Janeiro that unfolds against the backdrop of Pope John Paul II's visit to the country in 1997. The authorities are in a flap because the neighborhood in which the pope is staying borders one of the city's most notorious shantytowns. They put the crack military police unit called BOPE, the film's titular "elite squad", in charge of security during the visit. This entails ruthlessly eliminating local gangs, especially drug dealers. BOPE are a fearsome killing machine with a reputation for being as incorruptible as Rio's regular police are bent. Their motto is "Dagger to the skull and nothing to the wallet." In this urban jungle you shoot first and ask questions later.

BOPE is led by the charismatic Capt. Nascimento, a living legend among the unit. Nascimento no sooner receives his papal assignment when his pregnant wife orders him to quit putting his life at risk on the frontline. Nascimento decides to transfer to officer training, but not before grooming his successor. The frontrunners are Neto and Macias, two close friends who joined BOPE after despairing of the corruption, red tape and general incompetence of the Municipal Police. Clearing the slums of crime is going to test their mettle to the utmost.

Many critics and viewers have accused the makers of The Elite Squad of deliberately glorifying violence by depicting a world in which young police officers can only earn the respect of their colleagues and superiors by demonstrating that they can cold-bloodedly kill unarmed and defenseless gangsters, a world in which police snipers shoot to kill suspects without warning, where the victim is just another body in the street.

Padilha refutes this, arguing that this is what life is really like in Brazil. The Elite Squad was originally intended to be a documentary. It was turned into a feature when the filmmakers realized they would be risking their lives in Brazil by showing a documentary like that to the world. They did not clarify whether they were in danger from the gangs or from the police.

Witold Żygulski
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