Reel Society

Reviews for the latest movies in theaters and on DVD.

Elite Squad

Review by Eoin O’Faolain

Film and politics have never sat well together. Indeed, Hollywood is comprised mainly of liberals.  Hence, we get an unbalanced quantity of output. And when conservatives try to make movies, you get silly films like An American Carol, an attempt to be satirical while being as subtle as a coked-up bull in a Faberge egg store. Arguably, the best political films are the ones that either recognize the complexity of any social situation, or the ones who question their own beliefs and thus avoiding the death-trap of dogma. Elite Squad has topped the Brazilian box office, receiving much critical acclaim, but in the UK and US, the film has received mixed reviews, with many of the negative comments focussing on the film’s politics. But Elite Squad is a film with more depth than some hard-core liberals might want to admit to.

Essentially, Elite Squad is the opposite perspective of the modern classic City of God. Whereas the latter explores the history of Rio’s favelas as told by its residents, Elite Squad focuses on the city’s police force and their attempts to deal with the resident crime-lords. Captain Nascimento heads an “elite squad” of super-troopers, known as BOPE, a hard-core group of gun-toting SWAT teams who take no chances when a situation gets dire. However, Nascimento is tired of his violent life, and the pressure builds as his search for a replacement is intensified by the need to clear up a particular section of the slums to coincide with Pope John Paul II’s visit. The frustrated Nascimento keeps an eye on two candidates, the proactive Neto and the law student Mathias.

On a superficial level, Elite Squad is a blistering assault on the eyes. Shot using shakey-cam techniques, the plot races past, and boasts a level of complexity including Mathias’s relationship with his fellow cop-wary students, an NGO set-up in a favela under close watch from its suspicious drug-baron, and an affluent youth who seem to be part of the problem as opposed to its solution. The worst thing that can be said about this film is that the director’s methods owe a little too much to City of God, and that its own style would have ensured that the film achieved complete distinction.

There are two important points to this film. The first is more about reality than the film iself. Crime is rampant in Rio de Janeiro. The favelas are ruled by crime bosses and drug dealers. But if recent reviews suggest that a non-violent approach will somehow quell the crimes, then their liberal viewpoints are incredibly naive (I should mention at this stage that I consider myself to be a liberal, but even I can’t deny the problems associated with relaxed laws and punishments). It’s no surprise that the film was so well-received in Brazil, by people who are close to the situation represented in the film. And while I can’t say that machine guns and torture can beat the criminals entirely, there is a certain satisfaction in seeing abusive and downright nasty scum get their come-uppance as the film progresses.

 The other point worth noting is that the makers of the film do understand that the situation isn’t exactly black-and-white. Nascimento is no Rambo. There are multiple levels to Nascimento’s gradual break-down and desperation to leave. He quaffs pills to calm himself, despite persisting nightmares. In one scene, Nascimento is genuinely shaken by the emotional collapse the mother of one of his victims (a lookout for a drug-dealer). Despite Nascimento’s hard-man facade, he’s actually a mess. One could argue that this only attempt to solidify the film’s right-wing morals by making its “hero” more sympathetic, but it mostly indicates that there’s no easy solution. We also see the consequences of BOPE’s action, which lead to further violence, and potentially add to a perfectly vicious circle. However, it would have helped if the film didn’t culminate in the “exciting” chase of the criminal who kills one of the lead characters, pushing any moral ambivalence into the background.

Rather than glorify its militant actions, Elite Squad is more in the centre than liberal journalists would like to admit. Their disgust is not with the film, but with the savage scenario that the film faces. But what makes this film so exciting is not its right-wing ethos (although you could argue that the film does tease out the right in its audience), but in its ability to provoke, while just about maintaining a neutral view-point on a difficult and complex situation.

3 ½ / 5 stars


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