Number one with a bullet

Not since City of God has a Brazilian film excited such debate as Elite Squad, which addresses police brutality in Rio de Janeiro's drug-ravaged slums. Tom Phillips reports from Brazil and compares the reality of life in the favelas with the movie's depiction of power and poverty


As one of Brazil's most respected young actors, Wagner Moura is no stranger to challenging parts. He has interpreted a former Brazilian President, a crack-addled convict and is currently playing Hamlet in São Paulo. But when an early version of the script for Elite Squad dropped through his letterbox in 2005 he immediately realised it would be one of the most demanding and controversial roles of his career.

  1. Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite)
  2. Release: 2007
  3. Country: Rest of the world
  4. Cert (UK): 18
  5. Runtime: 118 mins
  6. Directors: Jose Padilha
  7. Cast: Andre Ramiro, Caio Junqueira, Maria Ribeiro, Wagner Moura  

He was asked to consider playing Captain Roberto Nascimento - a fictitious member of Rio de Janeiro's special forces police unit, Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais, known as the Bope, a meticulously trained and widely feared group engaged in a daily conflict with a legion of heavily armed drug traffickers. Wearing his trademark black beret, Captain Nascimento tortured his suspects, executed his enemies and involved himself in almost daily shoot-outs, rampaging through the city's sprawling favelas with his fellow 'Men in Black'.

'I thought straightaway that this was going to be an important film to watch, particularly for us Brazilians,' remembers Moura. 'It is a film that tells us a lot about ourselves.'

In fact, Elite Squad, released in the UK next month, proved to be one of the most explosive and controversial films in the history of Brazilian cinema. Even before the film was officially released, millions of people, from the southern metropolises of Rio and São Paulo to relatively isolated Amazon cities such as Manaus and Belém, scrambled for pirate copies, triggering a national debate about urban violence and drug use that dominated the front pages for months. When the film finally hit the big screen in October 2007, Rio's police force took its director, José Padilha, to court, accusing him of tarnishing the organisation's reputation, and then threatened to throw him in jail, until Rio's governor intervened in his defence.

In police stations, university lecture theatres, army barracks, drug dens and country clubs alike, Tropa de Elite became the topic of the moment. Many praised the film as a virtually unprecedented insight into Rio de Janeiro's brutal underworld. Some, like Marcelo Janot, a film critic from the Globo newspaper, accused the film of promoting 'a dangerous ideology', that Rio's notoriously violent special forces police were 'superheroes, out to combat the scum of humanity and the corrupt bourgeois'. Others described the film as 'fascist' for portraying, they claimed, a homicidal cop as a hero.

Whatever one's take on Elite Squad, one thing was clear: not since Fernando Meirelles's 2002 blockbuster City of God, whose spin-off City of Men was released in the UK earlier this month, has a Brazilian film made such a stir.

Documenting the work of a Swat team whose unofficial anthem carries the lines 'Men in Black, what is your task?/It's to go into the favelas and leave bodies on the ground' was never going to be an easy task. But then Padilha, 41, whose previous films about rainforest destruction, rural poverty and urban violence have earned him a reputation as a social crusader, is not one to take on simple issues.

'He gets interested in the tricky issues,' says Moura, who will travel to London in November to appear at the Young Vic theatre in Amazonia, a production written by fellow Brazilian Pedro Cardoso. 'Padilha doesn't just make any old film.'

Located in a leafy corner of southern Rio, the HQ of Padilha's production company, Zazen, is a world away from the violent slums depicted in his latest film.

'Very quickly, I realised that it was impossible to do a documentary,' he says, sitting in his second-floor office. 'They wouldn't let me capture the images of cops killing or torturing people in the slums. Cops wouldn't talk to me. So I decided not to do a documentary but instead to do a lot of research with several cops and police psychiatrists. I spent two years doing that and then out of this research I wrote a script for a fictional movie.'

Moura describes what followed as by far the most intense period of his acting career. Coached by former and serving members of Rio's special forces and theatre coach Fátima Toledo, who also worked on City of God, the actors embarked on a crash course in special forces tactics, Rio-style. Over a period of two months they were subjected to back-breaking physical training sessions and lessons in police slang, and were even taught how best to extract information from a suspect using nothing but a plastic bag or a broomstick.

'It was the craziest thing I had ever done in my acting life,' says Moura, a softly spoken 32-year-old from northeastern Brazil, who became so involved in his character that at one point he admits hitting a police coach in the face and breaking his nose.

'The special forces are hugely proud of belonging to their unit, so for them it didn't matter whether we were actors or not. They wanted us to portray their work well. It was heavy stuff. Lots of actors gave up [because of the training], they just left, slammed the door, told the trainers to fuck right off. It was bloody difficult.

'When we were training we would forget that we were even making a film. All we wanted was to get through it, to survive that madness.'

While his actors were toiling under the tropical sun, Padilha also set out in search of a team of favela-based fixers who could grant him access to some of the most dangerous corners of the city in order to film there. Rio is home to around 700 favelas, the majority controlled by drug traffickers or vigilante gangs.

One of those enlisted was Alexandre Rodrigues, a 34-year-old former drug trafficker-turned-social activist. Rodrigues - who is also known as Jovem Cerebral (Young Brain) - became one of the movie's consultants, arranging everything from permission to film in the city's shantytowns to teaching the actors the most realistic way to hold their guns.

Having been brought up in the notorious Morro da Mineira shantytown, not far from where much of the film was shot, and having spent five years working as a foot-soldier for the Red Command drug faction and a further two behind bars, Rodrigues knew his subject well.

'Padilha wanted someone who understood the day-to-day life of these communities,' he says.

I meet Rodrigues, who now runs a company called Favela Consultoria that offers guidance to film crews wanting to use slums as their locations, on a scorching Sunday afternoon, outside a cemetery near the entrance to the favela where he was born and raised. It doesn't take long to understand exactly why Padilha needed a guide. Making our way into the slum, we are eyed by four drug traffickers, barely out of their teens, each carrying a different model of assault rifle and with walkie-talkies strapped to their belts. As we pass them, one radios ahead to warn his colleagues further up the hill about the unknown visitor. As a result of the recent high-profile assassination of three young boys who were allegedly handed to the local traffickers by members of the Brazilian army, the shantytown is currently preparing for a real-life Bope invasion. The area's streets are all but deserted.

'The film is magnificent,' Rodrigues says, perched on the balcony of his family home, which peers over a sea of red-brick shacks and labyrinthine alleyways at the heart of the slum. 'It showed a reality that needed to be shown.'

However, if Elite Squad had been intended to denounce the tactics of a police force that last year gunned down a record 1,330 people, Rodrigues fears the effect has been counter-productive.

'I think in a certain way the Bope got more violent after the film. I have noticed this - that the actions of special operations units in the communities became even more devastating. And, in a certain way, society, because of this film, started to allow the Bope to carry out this ethnic cleansing that they are doing within communities. I think that society already had an interest in this happening... and the film just brought it out more. And those who end up paying the price, as always, are the people who live in the favelas.

'I have a critical opinion because I live this, I'm seeing the consequences,' he adds. 'The rest of the country liked the film. The people in the favela also liked it. The problem is the reaction to it that came afterwards.'

His words are echoed by Adalton Pereira, a community leader in the real-life City of God, where Fernando Meirelles's film was set, who explains that many locals found it harder to get jobs outside the slum because of the notoriety the 2002 film brought.

'Of course the film gave the community more visibility but it was not the residents that benefited from this,' he says.

Padilha firmly rejects criticism that instead of helping to reduce violence in Rio, his film has in fact fuelled it.

'Of course the movie has not created this situation. It is ridiculous to say that. When City of God was released in Brazil it caused a very similar reaction, which was that Meirelles's film was called "social Darwinism"... and he was also accused of making many kids want to be drug traffickers because Zé Pequeno [one of the gang leaders portrayed in the film] was a very charismatic character.'

He also dismisses the accusation - levelled at him by several human-rights campaigners - that by exploring the psychology of a murderous policeman he is justifying that policeman's actions.

'Of course Adolf Hitler is a bad guy, and Josef Stalin, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't look at what happened with them as kids to try to understand the psychological process that generated people like that.'

Instead, Padilha attributes much of the criticism of Elite Squad to a deep-set hypocrisy within Brazilian society. As well as portraying the fierce war between police and traffickers in Rio's slums, the film makes a clear link between the firepower of Rio's drug factions and the middle-class students who bank-roll such gangs with their marijuana and cocaine habits. In one scene Moura's character, Captain Nascimento, rubs the face of a middle-class drug user into a gaping hole that his men have just shot through a drug trafficker's chest. 'It was you who killed this guy, you scumbag,' the policeman shouts at the student. 'It's you who finances this shit, you stoner.'

'I think in Elite Squad what is bothering those people is that they do drugs themselves,' Padilha says. 'A lot of newspaper commentators - and I'm not telling you who, but if you make two or three calls you'll know - smoke a little joint before they write their articles. Now they look at the movie and the movie says, "Lo and behold, you are financing the drug dealers. You, who are very critical of the problem of violence in Rio, are right at the middle of it. Your little bourgeois pleasure is behind the money that buys the arms and the bullets that kill people in the favela."' Their response, he says, was to try to discredit his film.

Elite Squad's actual intention was, Padilha claims, to show 'the social process that makes a violent cop'. Just as his previous film, the documentary Bus 174, examined the childhood of a street-kid-turned-bus hijacker who made headlines in 2000 when he held up a bus not far from Padilha's production company, so, too, this film seeks to explore the social and cultural factors behind Rio's killer police force.

'I met several cops... and I started to realise that the same process that went on with juvenile delinquents was also going on with the cops,' he says. 'The aim of the movie is to explain where the violent cop comes from. There has never been a Brazilian movie with a protagonist that was a cop... Movies about cops are common everywhere: France, England, the US, Italy. Why is it that in Brazil movies about cops [are not allowed to be made]?'

The idea was also to do away with the myth that Rio's cops were simply cold-blooded killers, while the city's drug traffickers were Robin Hood-style heroes, he says.

'I don't buy the bullshit that drug traffickers are kind of nice warriors who are trying to escape poverty.'

In exposing the gritty reality of Rio's favelas, Elite Squad and City of God may not have done much for Rio de Janeiro's image as a tourist paradise. But the films have highlighted a more positive phenomenon - a new generation of young, mostly black actors born and bred in the city's impoverished outskirts who little by little are starting to break into Brazilian TV and cinema, a world previously reserved for either the wealthy or the white.

André Ramiro, who plays police rookie André Matias in Elite Squad, is a case in point. Raised in Vila Kennedy, a housing estate-cum-shantytown on the west side of Rio, Ramiro worked in a cinema box office until a friend convinced him to try out for Padilha's film. He had never acted before but walked straight into the part.

Less than two years later, his performance has propelled him into the world of cinema and television alongside dozens of other favela-born actors and actresses. Many others from this new generation, such as Roberta Rodrigues and Jonathan Haagensen, hail from Nós do Morro (We from the Favela), a theatre group based in the Vidigal shantytown in southern Rio that provided many of the cast members for City of God. Six years on, several are now household names in Brazil.

'Every shantytown is filled with these diamonds ready to be discovered,' says Ramiro, 27. 'Go in to any favela and you will see this. It is just a matter of giving us a chance, of investing. We have to show that we are just as good as the people from the South Zone of Rio,' he concludes.

Films that shook Brazilian society to the core, City of God and Elite Squad have left a multitude of legacies. None, however, is arguably as important as the fact that they have finally put Brazil's impoverished masses on the map.

'Elite Squad is like a cry from the Brazilian people,' says Ramiro.

'People,' adds Padilha, 'like the fact that their reality is being shown - just as it is.'

· Elite Squad is released on 8 August

Latin America's new wave
A distinctive storytelling voice is scoring hits worldwide

When Walter Salles's Central Station won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1998, it heralded much more than the return of Brazilian cinema to the world stage. A year later Crane World, by Argentine boy wonder Pablo Trapero, was scooping up awards all over the world. Then, in 2001 and 2002, the glorious Mexican wave of Amores Perros and Y Tu Mamá También sealed the deal: this was a Latin American film renaissance.

Mexico's buena onda has had the biggest impact overseas. Alejandro González Iñárritu's Amores Perros was an electric shock of a film: visceral, exciting, structurally ambitious, it launched the international careers of Iñárritu, Gael García Bernal and writer Guillermo Arriaga. Bernal quickly followed with Y Tu Mamá También, co-starring with fellow Mexican heart-throb Diego Luna. Alfonso Cuarón's hit was rollicking road movie, coming-of-age comedy and state-of-the-nation address, all rolled into one seriously sexy package.

Two other fine Mexican directors are Guillermo del Toro, whose command of fantasy allows for the jolly escapism of Hellboy, as well as the frightening, yet moving Pan's Labyrinth (see feature); and Carlos Reygadas, whose rigorously arthouse blend of sex, religion and gorgeous aesthetics, in Japón, Battle in Heaven and Silent Light, have elicited controversy and praise in equal measure.

In contrast, young Fernando Eimbcke's Duck Season was a wonderful and wise study of adolescence, with a very light touch. We can look forward to more youthful fare from Mexico, courtesy of Bernal and Luna, who have set up a production company together and are now directing their own movies.

In South America, the re-emergence of cinema has coincided with the tide of genuine political democracy, and improving economies, across the continent. After years of dictatorship, film-makers are rediscovering their voice.

In Argentina the prolific Trapero epitomises the resourceful new generation emerging from film schools. His vérité approach uses non-actors and draws its subjects from everyday life: from Crane World's study of a man trying to rebuild his life in middle-age, to family comedy Rolling Family and this year's Cannes favourite, women's prison drama Leonera.

Older hand Carlos Sorin also casts non-actors, in warm-hearted comedies about poor, provincial Argentines propped up by dreams. His best-known film, Bombón, El Perro, about an out-of-work mechanic entering the world of dog shows, starred a man who for years had parked Sorin's car. And he's brilliant.

A more polished style is offered by Daniel Burman, dubbed the Woody Allen of Buenos Aires. Burman has a screen alter ego: Uruguayan Daniel Hendler, one of the signature actors of the new Latin American cinema. His wry investigations of Jewish identity and father-son relationships - Waiting for the Messiah, Lost Embrace and Family Law - have been both local hits and prize-winners on the festival circuit.

But the director's director of Latin America could well be Argentina's Lucrecia Martel. An iconoclast, Martel's films The Swamp and The Holy Girl are atmospheric and mysterious, offering delicious observations on family, sexuality, religion and, particularly, the country's stagnating bourgeoisie.

Chile has an even younger generation of directors, excelling with low-budget digital films, notably Alicia Scherson, whose Play, a film at once about Santiago, indigenous culture and the iPod age, signals a bright new talent. Andrés Wood's more traditional Machuca, about events leading to the Pinochet coup in Chile, also screened successfully in the UK, as did delightful Uruguayan misfit comedy Whiskey.

And all the while, President Chávez is ploughing money into the Venezuelan film industry, even building a state-owned film studio. It can't be long before Venezuelan movies follow the Latin trail to an international audience.

· Demetrios Matheou is writing a book on South American cinema for Faber and Faber, to be published in 2009

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