(14/03/08) – What was the Costa Gravas-led jury thinking at Berlin this year last month when it awarded the best film Golden Bear to Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad, 2006) an incoherent, violent film that adopts the point of view of a member of an elite police force called Bope, whose main activity is to kill slum-dwelling drug dealers? Brazilian director José Padilha’s faux-documentary is narrated by a Captain Nascimento, a high-ranking member of a police force created during the country’s bloody dictatorship (it is based on a book written by ex-insiders). Unravelling over the months before a Pope visit to the country in 1997 (the squad was given the job to guarantee the leader of the Catholic church maximum security, no matter what) the film is a nihilistic paean to force, never attempting to unbury the underlying problems of the violence portrayed and give it a social, economic and political context. Instead, Padilha shows ‘reality’ as a kind of self-contained, manichaean hell. It’s cinema as gladiatorial arena.
In one of the most disturbing moments of the film, Captain Nascimento (played by ‘method actor’ Wagner Moura), a ruthless psychopath, kills a slum dweller in front of a group of middle-class kids gathered to smoke pot, just to give them a ‘lesson’. The screaming psychopath then tells a terrified teenager that he killed the victim because he smokes pot, therefore he finances all that violence.
The film was released in Brazil last October to a huge media frenzy that was generated by pre-sales of knock-off DVDs (two million units, apparently). When it came out theatrically it was either showered with praise from those who saw it as ‘social commentary’, or biting criticism from those who saw the fascist overtones of a film told from the point of view of a killer designed to pander to the country’s thirst for retaliation against criminals. Padilha never asks any questions that could make the film a piece of social realism, just like Captain Nascimento never asks any questions before killing his victims. What Padilha seems intent on is to numb the audience’s ability to reflect by throwing at them fast-edited violence and curse words, a strategy that has become a parameter of screen realism in some film quarters.
Perhaps the jury in Berlin was thinking money. The contemporary film business relies on the novelty value and hype potential of films coming from ’emerging markets’ like Brazil, sources of technically accomplished goods made on smaller budgets and that somehow manage to look much more expensive than they actually are. The Brazilian run-away hit City of God (2002) is still fresh on the collective film memory so there’s a potentially good business opportunity for this film.
From that point of view, it’s worth speculating that, if Elite Squad had been made in Europe or in the U.S., it might have been discarded as a piece of trash, a B cop film. But because it came from ‘outside’, then it can be sold as a ‘hot’, ‘exciting’ film that is politically sound to consume. But it isn’t. Elite Squad is nothing but a cynical exercise in marketing, a product of a business practice that sells violence as a form of authenticity. That such a banal, fetishist film was awarded at Berlin is the real shocker in its noisy trajectory and a dent on the venue’s credibility.