Several years ago a masterful Brazilian film Cidade de Deus (City of God) provided audiences with a rare and graphic insight into life in the favelas, the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Originally, the favelas were constructed by the city to isolate the poor. What should have been apparent in this stroke of urban planning genius is that these slums would be ruled by drug cartels with lethal and unrelenting turf wars. These criminals are not afraid to shoot back at the police, in fact the traditional city police rarely entered these territories for fear of getting shot and residents were considered lucky if they reached the age of twenty. The City of God is a truly innovative and highly stylized story told from the point of view of the young gangsters, which was totally convincing.
Enter Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad) a brutal film set in the same favelas but the story is told from the point of view of the police – or rather the BOPE, an elite unit of paramilitaries that is feared by the regular corrupt police and the criminals alike. This unit, known as the “skulls,” is a law unto itself and actually answers to no one outside of the BOPE organization. With set jaws and clenched teeth, these black-clad warriors deliver on-the-spot justice from the barrels of their weapons and have no problem gratuitously torturing hapless victims in broad daylight on the off-chance that they may have information they want. There is no element of boredom, humor or conventional film characterization as these men carry out their grim work. The men are driven and, unlike most of the traditional police force, totally incorruptible.
The plot is based on a pending the visit to Rio in 1997 by Pope John Paul II. The Holy Father has announced he wants to stay close to the favelas rather than stay at the bishop’s palace in the city, and it is BOPE’s mission to make the slums safe so the Pope can get some sleep. The stated mission appears to be irrelevant. The daily war with the gangs predates the Pope’s visit and will grind on with the same intensity after he leaves.
The Elite Squad follows hard-core Captain Nascimento as he prepares to choose his replacement because he is an expectant father and after being forced to confront the fallout caused by one of his squad’s actions, he starts to find himself unable to cope with the life-threatening nature of the job. Rookie cops Neto and Mathais are naïve new recruits to the regular police determined to stand against the corruption but trapped by its infection all the way to the top. One of the two will ultimately replace Nascimento and the movie follows their turbulent time in the regular force and then through to joining BOPE and its merciless training regime to decide who can make the grade.
Elite Squad is played straight down the line and it’s as tough and no-nonsense as the squad it represents. Tense gun-battles rage in the maze of the slums. Interrogations by BOPE are swift, brutal and bloody. Gang reprisals are just as swift and twice as unpleasant. BOPE training makes DELTA Force or SEAL training look like Disneyworld. For instance when a trainee falls asleep during a BOPE night class designed to put the students to sleep, Nascimento hands him a grenade and pulls the pin rather than a cup of coffee, instructing him that falling asleep again would kill everyone.
During the films shoots the crew was always working on the edge of danger. Dressed as cops inside the favelas, the crew had to wear bullet proof vests with ‘FILM CREW’ written on them over the uniforms while the cameras weren’t rolling. Apparently one day all of the weapons were stolen and some crew members were kidnapped. In terms of wishing for gritty realism the film makers got what they wished for in spades. One of the vans was appropriated, with crew members and most of the weapons that were used as props inside. Only after BOPE went on the hunt for several hours were the crew that had been taken forcibly by criminals armed with hand-grenades and AR-15 rifles returned unharmed. If that is not realism you tell me what is.
Both City of God and Elite Squad use a quasi-documentary filming technique that prevents the actors or actresses from knowing when they are on or off camera. The technique, in my opinion, is exceptional. It forces the actors to keep acting throughout the scene, go off script if necessary and do whatever it takes to keep them on their toes until the shot is finished.
All in all Elite Squad is the flip side to the coin portrayed in Fernando Meirelles’ City of God. Both are excellent films that use a not often spoken language (Portuguese) which is interesting to listen to as you follow the subtitles.
Next Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (Portuguese: Tropa de Elite 2 – O Inimigo Agora é Outro; Lit: Elite Troop 2: It’s Another Enemy Now; also known as Elite Squad 2) from 2010.