Rio de Janeiro, 1997: the hurly-burly of a seething open-air ‘baile’ (‘ball’). Sinewy slum soldiers tote loaded AKs at shoulder-height while female buttocks bounce low to the bass-boom of ‘funk carioca’ – Rio’s speaker-rumbling ghetto soundtrack. The rasp of gunfire suddenly intrudes. Bodies scatter as once-dancing limbs are shredded in the crossfire between cops and gangs. Just another night out in Rio...
Brazil’s resurgent cinema has familiarised us with the perpetual war raging within its illegal shanty towns. Though sharing DNA with 2002’s City Of God (frenetic editing, narration, boisterous soundtrack), the Golden Bear-winning Elite Squad breaks from Fernando Meirelles’ helter-skelter masterwork in one regard: while God jostled with the crims, Squad focuses tightly on the cops.
Not that the latter necessarily operate any nearer the ‘law’. As director José Padilha (hostage doc Bus 174) quickly establishes, virulent corruption among an ill-trained, impoverished police force has greased the cycle of violence. Into this sick status quo clump the heavy boots of the ‘elite squad’. When regular flatfoots are overcome by the drug militias, the state’s black-clad stormtroopers, BOPE, roll in with their skull-and-cross-guns emblem and harsh methods (shooting on sight, half-asphyxiating with plastic bags). Among them is harried, hard-nut narrator Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura), whose fraught domestic life is intercut with his mentoring of two raw recruits, brainy Matias (André Ramiro) and tenacious Neto (Caio Junqueira), survivors of a brutal boot-camp in which the weak are systematically whittled away.
Despite pummelling the gut, Squad’s scrappy storytelling and deliberately ambiguous message lack the finesse and earthy soul of Meirelles’ film, Nascimento’s Casino-style narration distancing us from the two true stars.
With our sympathy for BOPE’s thuggish enforcers severely undermined, Padilha has been criticised for presenting a ‘fascist’ vision of Rio’s drug war, where the only solution is maximum force. But nothing is clear-cut in this intense brew of brutality, stupidity and genuine tragedy. We’re left lamenting that it will go on, unless Brazil engages its brain before its fist.