Shot with a handheld shakeycam that chases the action and swivels back and forth during dialogue like the crowd at a tennis match, accompanied by an intrusive narrator offering play-by-play and self-evident analysis, and scoring its scenes of cops-and-robbers clashes in Rio’s favelas to a pulse-pounding soundtrack of hardcore and baile funk, José Padilha’s Elite Squad lays out Brazil’s criminal society and makes it into the stuff of spectator sport. What hath City of God wrought?
Elite Squad’s Golden Bear win at this year’s Berlin Film Festival occasioned a critical pile-on and a few brandishings of the descriptor “fascist,” which isn’t precisely right. True, we see the titular B.O.P.E. unit of the Rio police rain down on the slums and wash all the scum off the streets, shooting first and asking questions with their fingers on the trigger, in the name of securing the streets in preparation for a papal visit — “Operation Holiness.” But the unit’s brutal omnipotence (their uniforms are black, not blue) is meant more as exposé, just as the true-believing voice-over of B.O.P.E. cop Nascimento (Wagner Moura) is, increasingly, ironically juxtaposed with his rages at wife and child: we see rookie officers Neto (Caio Junqueira) and Matias (André Ramiro) pushed to B.O.P.E. by force culture of hierarchical graft and bureaucratic corruption, and indoctrinated into B.O.P.E.’s culture of revenge killings and systematic bloody torture.
So far so critical, at least in theory, but Padilha and co-writers Rodrigo Pimentel and Bráulio Mantovani (a City of God co-scribe) drag their muckrake across the whole network, giving Matias scholarly ambitions, the better to gain entry into a world of hot air-blowing students, naïve social activists and hypocritical rich kids, who get their stash from a jheri-curled, arrowheaded pusherman who (he himself announces) functions as a guerilla front, and recruits street kids to a life of crime. It’s less a cross-section or diagnosis than it is a wallow through each element of the system at its caricatured worst; pouncing critics can be forgiven for thinking that the portrayals of coke-hoovering children of privilege and NGOs kowtowing to local kingpins are in the movie to justify B.O.P.E.’s fascistic tactics.
Rather than interrogatory, Elite Squad is merely loud — it revels in its straw-man trustafarians, and lingers, in the guise of revelation, on underworld brutality and B.O.P.E.’s badass full metal jacketed basic training. Padilha’s previous film was the bus-hijacking doc Bus 174, which in his hands became an almost too earnest sociological study with a hint of Errol Morris (in the many-sided interviews, and TV news footage standing in for Morris’s talismanic reenactments, for a bit of extra epistemological chewiness). So it’s especially disheartening to see him turn to the favelasploitation genre pioneered by countryman turned Oscar-bait helmer Fernando Meirelles. Neither particularly fascist nor conscientious, Elite Squad is simply an audition tape, its “urgency” piggybacked on a nation’s abjection.