Why you should care

Because this is a window into the violence of Brazilian society.

Want to know what movie Brazilians watch? Actually, it’s two: two sequels that repeat on TV here every weekend. They are two films that first struck a chord in Brazil eight years ago, reflecting a world many lived but few knew: Elite Squad and its sequel. They’re career-making works for both the director, José Padilha, and its star, Wagner Moura — the same names that have paired for the newest Netflix series, Narcos.

With a soundtrack that tingles, lightly tapping at the back of your neck, and jerky, swinging camerawork that emphasizes the chaos and aimlessness of the situation, the Elite Squad films dunk the viewer into the hairy world of crime and justice in Rio’s hillside favelas. Told in the omniscient voice of SWAT (called BOPE) team police captain Nascimento, played by rising star Moura, the film recalls Traffic in its brutal and bloody assessment of a complicated situation. But it goes further. UCLA professor Randal Johnson notes, “It was one of the first, if not the first,” to show the complicity of the middle- and upper-middle class, and particularly students, in the drug violence.

Georgetown University professor of history Bryan McCann calls Elite Squad a classic vigilante flick: “fulfilling all the elements of the genre,” from Dirty Harry to The Searchers. He points particularly to Moura’s character: “the ambiguous, burdened protagonist cleansing violence with violence” in a way that is sickening, precisely because it is at some level satisfying. The film and its sequel fit into an “important tendency” in Brazilian cinema — one you might have caught a glimpse of in City of God — and “that is the attempt to come to terms with the drug-related violence that has affected Brazilian society,” says Johnson. Sociologist Alessandro Angelini notes that Brazilians came away from the film “convinced that either BOPE is the lone guardian of the rule of law or the surest sign of its demise.”

Do the films glorify abusive officers like Nascimento? Do they strip the humanity from poor favela residents?

The film was director José Padilha’s first feature; he had previously directed the highly acclaimed documentary Bus 174. The original Elite Squad movie won Best Film at the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival, but a better indicator of its success was domestic: When the film was illegally leaked on YouTube, 11 million Brazilians ate it up. Three years later, Padilha released a sequel called Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (the real translation is “Now the Enemy Is Another”). The film takes a step back from the gun-barrel-level view of the first, and scans the interlocking systems of politics and media that propel and then feed off of the street violence. By the time the controversy-licking sequel hit, the result was no surprise: It swept the Brazilian film awards, picked up an Oscar nomination and quickly became the highest-grossing Brazilian film of all time.

Since they boomed onto the Brazilian film scene, the Elite Squad films have launched Padilha into different, Californian territory. A double-edged symbol of success for Brazilian directors is that they move to Hollywood: Padilha did so under death threats following the Elite Squad films. He would end up directing the remake of RoboCop in 2014. Perhaps as a result of its roaring success, the films set off a massive debate in Brazil over the criminalization of recreational drug users, combined with the use of torture by police forces cracking down on the trade. Do the films glorify abusive officers like Nascimento? Do they strip the humanity from poor favela residents? Do they normalize Rio’s violence? As more favela pacification sweeps roll out and crime rates climb in a city primed to take the world stage again during the 2016 Summer Olympics, those questions still linger.

To be sure, the Elite Squad films fit into a certain narrative being told about Brazil: one of high contrasts in Rio de Janeiro, of saturated violence and scrambling lives. It’s strangely, perversely attractive to the foreign viewer: a voyeuristic glimpse into a world so exotic and dangerous that it defies nightmares — slum tourism without needing to board a bus. “Stereotypical at this point,” adds McCann. But every rainy weekend, Brazilians keep watching, scanning the mirror to see how much they’ve changed.

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