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From Rio With Love: Elite Squad and the Brazil Problem

By Dan Saipher | Film | February 18, 2011 |

By Dan Saipher | Film | February 18, 2011 |

Our perceptions of other nations are so carefully scripted and defined that we are rarely able to see into the middle; the extremes of beauty and poverty are the first conjured images, rather than the real truth in normalcy. This concept even extends into America. What do you think of when I mention the city of New Orleans? Do you see the decadent and drunk collage of Mardi Gras? Or the desperation and devastation of Hurricane Katrina? How often are we invited into the life of someone parallel to our own working, middle-class and boring lives? Media is always interested in the extremes, upper or lower class, and filmmaking rarely pierces this “middle living” outside of independent releases.

So how do we begin to construct an image of a nation like Brazil? What are the first few key images that come to your mind? Soccer? Samba? Perhaps Carnivale and an open-armed Jesus on a high hill? And do the films that come from Brazil reinforce these stereotypes, are we too easily glossed-over by aesthetics and the vibrant rhythm of the storytelling? What of the problematic favelas of Brazil; colorful communities that trade extraordinary panoramic vistas for violence and narcotics?

Start with Black Orpheus, a 1959 release and re-telling of the myth of Orpheus, Eurydice, and the journey to the Underworld. Black Orpheus is rife with African sensibilities and deep racial implications; while Sidney Poitier was only beginning to gain acceptance at the onset of the Civil Rights movement in the United States, a gorgeous and talented cast of dark-skinned Portuguese faces populate our mythological re-telling. Jazz and samba set the score, color dances and the movement of characters give us a viewing experience so rich we can enjoy it as a portrait without a comprehension of the language. An emerald hat as the camera pans past a line of heads, a gold jacket moving away off scene, a blue door breaking faded stucco walls, parades like Seurat’s delicate compositions in motion. Black Orpheus’ impact, though, is far beyond the surface. The movie confronts lower-class fears of death and nonfulfillment, old-world polytheism and a growing country. And while America was gripped in the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, the mixed and multi-cultural ethnicities of Brazil afford the film an inability not to confront race. Considering the year, country, and global social climate, do you find it perhaps irresponsible not to confront racism head-on, or more daring to leave it out of the equation entirely?

The next piece of popular Brazilian film to make a deep impact was 2002’s City of God. It’s amazing and daring, as the filmmakers casted locals from the Rio favelas and let them improvise the hyper-violent conditions they live in every day. But instead of retelling a Greek myth, City of God attacks the true circle of violence that goes unchecked in these modern ghetto communities. In fact, with some further research on the film, you’ll find out that the kids and amateur actors had to be moved from their homes for fear of reprisals from local gangs. The disregard for life and non-presence of authority is no fairy tale.

We are only a few short years from the 2014 World Cup, as well as the 2016 Summer Olympics, both of which will be held in Brazil. Often times there are major concerns with infrastructure, hotels and night life, but Brazil has a specific criminal problem to deal with. The two largest sporting events in the world will take place in a country rife with political corruption and extreme gang violence. These problems go deeper than just our celluloid tales; in Brazil, not only are athletes targeted victims, but sometimes they are even the
perpetrators of violence. With only so many years to clean up these problems, can the country afford to take a peaceful path or education and civic improvement? Can Brazil take all of the necessary precautions to protect its citizenry, foreign athletes, and tourists without exercising extreme methods? There may be too much at stake for decision-makers to answer “yes” to that previous question; the lasting impact of these sporting events is a renewed foreign interest in exposing new markets for aggressive and ambitious investments. Hosting an Olympics under the shadow of machine-gun battles and exploding cars is no way to attract needed foreign capital.

Moving right along, we end with the viewing of 2007’s Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad), an award-winning continuation of the issues first brought to attention by City of God. The difference now is that we’re tackling the issues within the favela from a variety of different angles. The narrator is Nascimento, a squad leader in the BOPE, Brazil’s toughest police unit, a sort of SWAT-team with carte blanche to clean out the favelas and usurp jurisdiction from the local police. Our “protagonist” (more on that in a bit), dealing with the rigors of his dangerous high-risk work, is paralleled by two young police offers, Neto and Andre, who move up through the local police department and into a position of replacing Nascimento. The BOPE’s freedom extends beyond normal law enforcement; they are portrayed as a frat-boy paramilitary force, probing the favelas at their leisure, cleaning out local drug pockets by shooting first and interrogating suspects without consequence.

After further viewings, we’re left still with no clear-cut moral compass or understanding of who’s right and wrong. Is it the students, liberal crusaders for social justice, blind to the underlying consequences of their casual drug use? Is it the local police, trying to carve out a slice of the pie while keeping themselves bullet-free, checking the power of the drug trade through bribery enforcement? Is it perhaps the kids used as foot soldiers by the dealers, perpetually stuck in poverty and forgotten by society, exploited and forced to hold machine guns to earn money for shoes, clothing, perhaps food?

It’s still hard to look back and declare any among Nascimento, Neto, or Andre as the hero. Nascimento is the narrator, yes, but despite his declared intent to the leave the BOPE, he takes a borderline sadistic joy in his work, in particular the brutal and unsupervised training of new recruits. Can we create a hero out of man who suffocates teenagers with a plastic bag to get to the next link in the drug trade? Neto begins the films as a clean shaven and wide-eyed novice, who, along with Andre, honestly attempts to weed out corruption in his local police station. But, he changes before our eyes, enjoying the dangerous gunfights and shoot-outs in the shanty towns with a fresh shaven head and still-drying BOPE tattoo on his arm. And Andre is our last character that we seek to pour our faith in, his integrity the last to fall. His law-school ambitions are turned on by those who’d like to put a bullet in a police officer’s head, and in the last scene of the film we grimace as he turns to the dark side of the job, Nascimento doing a far better job than Emperor Palpatine did on Anakin Skywalker.

But where’s the solution in this economic and social plague? As the
problems of the favelas persist
, these massively populated and impenetrable cities-within-cities seem impervious to any action on a sliding scale of justice. The middle ground, a social movement of education and aid represented by the students, cannot possibly win when the drug dealers control their level of success. The police represent the lax enforcement of the law and perhaps the safest course. While their corruption is both insurmountable and persistent, do they not represent the lowest body count by allowing the drugs and exploitation of the ghettos go smoothly? And finally, you can cheer or be horrified by the BOPE, but does their hard line stance and refusal to put down their guns exist as a power granted by the impossibility of their task? If nothing else is working, are they then justified? It’s hard to accept their actions when you consider they are ostensibly fighting a war in their own neighborhoods; but how do we separate what they do, and what soldiers oversea are doing to combat terrorism of a different nature? Are these communities so deep that you must consider them to be foreign soil, and that the men of the BOPE are soldiers empowered by the forces they oppose?

The common link in these films extend beyond quality of work; it’s a question of society coming to grips with its lowest class. While the favelas perch themselves on hillsides, dotting the landscape like a stained-glass sheen, the poor, uneducated and undocumented interweave with drug dealers and domestic terrorists. Do these films show us the solution, or do they show us the solutions that plainly are not working?

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.