(BY ALI NADERZAD) This October in Brazil a new feature film called Tropa de Elite stirred some so-called controversy for its realistic depiction of police brutality and corruption. Tropa, loosely based on real persons, portrays a team of Brazilian SWAT officers (known as BOPE) as they raid neighborhoods and terrorize young armed militias on drug outpost duty. Their mission: to sanitize the worst neighborhoods in time for the Pope’s visit–the year is 1997. The buzz about Tropa de Elite seems a little misplaced: the story is uneven–it wavers. A rapid-fire succession of scenes nourishes a familiar but entertaining story and then suddenly and inexplicably reverses in time, inflicting a bit of a letdown. At the epicenter of Tropa is Matthias (Andre Ramira), an inscrutable young police officer-in-training who befriends his classmate Roberta (Fernanda de Freitas); Matthias’s shoulders are where the film’s entire moral heft rests; after all, Tropa’s main message is that Brazilian policemen are easily corruptible. In one scene, Matthias is shown in class (like few of his uniformed cohorts he is attending college), adding piquancy to a heated debate on police brutality by defending cops but camouflages his other duties as policeman. Soon, he arouses the interest of Roberta, played by the striking Fernanda de Freitas. Matthias’s evil–but tortured–twin is Captain Nascimento (Walter Moura). Nascimento is the kind of policeman who, if emprisoned later for abuses of power will jabber on about how he merely followed orders. Nascimento, on whose stygian impulses this film seems to be based, is prone to violent tantrums and medicated with anti-anxiety drugs. But Tropa is meant to show the cesspool of Brazil’s urban policing from the perspective of the police. So Nascimento is not just shown as an elite squad captain playing god–he’s also got a softer side, plied urgently by the birth of his son. Softish family scenes interspersed with elite cops spraying machine-gunfire around the shanty slowly lend a deadening counterpoint. In the end, these pitiful lives obliterated inside the favelas somehow drive home the point that police units are far from homogeneous: where the brave thrives, the depraved and the corrupt isn’t tucked very far.
TROPA DE ELITE (Weinstein Company; 2007), dir. Jose Padilha, starring Walter Moura, Caio Junqueira, Andre Ramiro and Bruno Delia. Visit the Brazilian site here.