Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (2010)

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (2010) movie poster

director José Padilha
viewed: 08/18/2013

José Padilha’s Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, the sequel to his popular Elite Squad (2007), a film about the Rio law enforcement SWAT team (BOPE) and their brutal, idealistic leader, deepens a further complicates the portrayal of crime and punishment in Brazil’s notorious favelas.

Elite Squad earned some criticism in glorifying or at least endorsing the fascist tactics of the BOPE, led by Wagner Moura as Roberto Nascimento, the squad’s morally dedicated and desiccated leader.  In the first film, the squad is the only uncorrupt and uncorruptible force in a system of massive criminality and cops “on the take”.  All criminals, even college students smoking joints, are seen as part of the problem and due harsh punishment as such.  This ideology and dialog is explicit in the film, though I thought open for aspects of interpretation.

In Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, Padilha moves Nascimento into government and politics, the result of another distastefully violent and brutal outcome of a prison riot that his team quelled with bullets despite the left-wing pacifist intervention trying to come to less bloody terms.  In moving into higher up echelons in the system, Nascimento hopes to make greater strides for his fight against crime.  But he finds that politics has made for some hypocritical and ruthless bedfellows and the corruption of Rio’s state is rife to the top.

The story is a bit facile, with Nascimento’s ex-wife having married his political foil, the liberal spokesman for defense of the poor.  But it gives Padilha a handy structure upon which to hang his complicated portrait of the realities of crime in Brazil.  Whether fascist police take down the criminals or not, the rich and well-connected only care about maintaining power, not about the lives of anybody in the slums or out.

It’s a good, rather complex political and action thriller, certainly above the usual levels of thought and polemics.  I thought its complexity made it more interesting but also muddied the film from a pure narrative standpoint.  Comparatively, that is, to the first film.   Still, very good.  Pretty interesting stuff.

Elite Squad (2007)

Elite Squad (2007) movie poster

director José Padilha
viewed: 07/17/2013

Fascism and the action film have been partners perhaps long before Dirty Harry (1971), but certainly nothing so new by 2007 when Brazilian director José Padilha’s Elite Squad came out.  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Dirty Harry, so maybe it’s not the best point of reference, but even later films like RoboCop (1987) (also been a long while) took on the issue of a police state style tactics against an out of control criminal populace.

The big difference, at least in the Robocop films, or even in Judge Dredd comics or the more recent Dredd (2012) movie is a somewhat ironical commentary, positioning a narrative in a near or far future in which the world has evolved in cartoonish extremes, still meant to represent a picture of the present day.  Padilha’s Elite Squad isn’t a portrait of the future, but a portrait of the recent past.  Based on the book Elite da Tropa by sociologist Luiz Eduardo Soares and two former BOPE captains, André Batista and Rodrigo Pimentel, it’s a fictionalized version of a non-fiction history.  And the fascist techniques that this elite troop of paramilitary police officers exact in the Rio slums isn’t at all ironic but is also portrayed as absolutely necessary.

Narrated by veteran Squad Captain Roberto Nascimento (Wagner Moura), the perspective of the film is sited within a man who leads ruthless raids on favelas, shooting first, threatening everyone in sight, condemning the rich who use drugs, dirty cops, anyone on the fringe of the law.  It’s really not unlike the Judge Dredd character, cops that are judge, jury, and executioners.  The criminals are vicious and armed to the teeth, and entering their world is to be utterly surrounded by life or death risk.  Regular beat cops won’t even enter the favelas.  They are considered lawless states.  Until the Elite Squad rams in.

He’s about to become a father and he’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  Showing any mercy, any human feeling, is a breach not just of etiquette but a risk of life and limb to his men.  And with one act of empathy he loses a colleague.  He comes home, blames his wife, chases her out.

The story follows him trying to find a replacement for himself, with two keen recruits in his sights.  One is cut from the same cloth as himself, the other is more socially minded, a law student, who works with other students who work to try social reforms with the favelas.  Discussing Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, there is clearly acknowledgement of system critiques.  But the students all end up being pot-smoking, would-be good-doers, unaware of the realities of police work.  And ultimately, as often is the case in narratives like this, the fascist mentality wins.

Really, though, given the portrayal of Nascimento, the questions raised by the law student cop, and perhaps other aspects of the film, I don’t know that it’s a whole-hearted endorsement of the police tactics.  Though, certainly, that seems to be a fairly consistent criticism of the film.

It was so popular in Brazil that a sequel was engendered, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (2010), which is in my queue.  And Padilha’s star has risen to be given the apt directorial seat in the RoboCop (2014) remake.  It seems familiar territory, though it will be definitely interesting to see what way he takes it.  The original 1987 film was one of director Paul Verhoeven’s great science fiction films (including Total Recall () and Starship Troopers (), featuring his clearly comic use of irony along with slick effects and action.  The two RoboCop sequels were written by notable comic book writer Frank Miller, and his lean towards fascist belief (non-ironically) probably is cause for some revisiting and reanalysis therein.

Elite Squad is a taut action film.  Very well made, quite gripping.  Morally questionable, perhaps.

Waste Land

Waste Land (2010) movie poster

(2010)  director Lucy Walker, João Jardim, Karen Harley
viewed: 04/24/11

Nominated for Best Documentary at this years Academy Awards, Waste Land sounded like an interesting film.  Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, after achieving success in the United States and Europe, devised a project that would contribute back to the poor of his home country, a world in which he himself had grown up.  He goes to Jardim Gramacho in Rio de Janeiro, the world’s largest garbage dump and seeks to create portraits of the garbage pickers out of the recyclable materials that they pick from the trash, employing them in the process.

He then photographs these huge constructed images and turns out huge prints that tour at major art museums and are sold at auction, passing the money (or some portion of it) back to the garbage pickers and their union, giving them funding but also exposure, drawing attention to their lives.

It’s interesting, and certainly some of the garbage pickers are charming, inspiring characters.  What Muniz did was generous and meaningful, helping people as he has.  Director Lucy Walker follows him through the creation of the project, down into the massive, overwhelming dump, through the art project and the exhibitions.  And the film has moments of hope and joy.

But it’s not the best documentary in the world.  Not even the best one that had been up for Best Documentary.  But it’s vantage on the marginalized poor, especially with its altruistic, artistic aspect and glimmering “feel good” qualities, it’s easy to see how it might connect with people.  But it’s not “great”, though it’s interesting.  I’m also not so sure about the art that Muniz creates.  It’s a nice project but I would say it’s not great art.  Maybe that’s the same with the film.

At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul

At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1964) movie poster

(1964) director José Mojica Marins
viewed: 10/24/10

Long lingering in my Netflix rental queue, José Mojica Marins’ At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is a strange and interesting Brazilian horror film, dubbed by some “the first Brazilian horror film”.  And actually, it’s Netflix that had recommended this to me.  If anything, I only had the vaguest notion of José Mojica Marins or the character as it would come to be known in English as “Coffin Joe”.

The character Coffin Joe, Zé do Caixão in the film, is the local undertaker in a small Brazillian village.  He’s a rebellious figure, pooh-poohing the superstitions and religion of the people he serves.  He has an intellectual edge on them and through his malice and self-interest, bullies them brutally as well.  Dressed in a black top hat and a cape, and wearing a sizable black beard, he is hardly a towering figure, but a weird and intimidating one.  Director Marins had trouble casting the role and at the last minute ended up playing it himself.  He wound up with and unlikely cult horror figure who would return in a few different movies and on television and other forms of popular Brazilian culture.

As the story starts out, he’s lusting after his best friend’s girlfriend, disappointed with his own girlfriend’s inability to have a child.  He’s madly focused on carrying on his bloodline, and ultimately, as he winds up killing his girlfriend and his best friend in hopes of extending his chances with the other woman.  He is brutal and ruthless, torturing, maiming, and killing, and justifying it all because of his superior self-knowledge and being.

I guess that’s what makes him interesting.  There is something rebellious and angry about his character’s rejection of Catholic beliefs and cultural mores that make him somewhat heroic.  But he’s heinous by far compared to his qualities.

The film opens with Coffin Joe addressing the camera with some statements about life and death and blood.  This is followed by an address from an old gypsy woman toting a skull about how horrifying the film will be.   For Coffin Joe will get his in the end.  Eating meat on a holy day, raping and killing, daring the devil to come and take him from the world, Joe eventually meets his prophesized doom.

Certainly interesting.  Interesting enough to queue up some of the later Coffin Joe movies.  Not quite as fascinating as I was tempted to hope for, but certainly something worth seeing.

City of God

City of God (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Kátia Lund, Fernando Meirelles
viewed: 11/04/03 at Embarcadero Center Cinema, SF, CA

A ambitious, sprawling epic of a film about the unbelievably tough lives of the youth in the slums of Rio. Violent and harsh, but speckled with aspects of melodrama, City of God certainly had its moments. At its best points, it sketched out the lives of its vast cast of characters, moving quickly through a period of 10-15 years through the 1970’s into the early 1980’s, telling numerous specific little stories in the grand sweep of the entire period. All in all, a good film.