You would think we’d all find cinematic violence mind-numbingly blasé by now. With Tarantino disciples in endless supply, so many American movies ooze such vast amounts of blood and death that it seems like the territory of lusty carnage should be completely charted. And yet, just moments into Elite Squad, Brazilian director José Padilha’s masterful parable of cruelty and iniquity, the screen is awash in blood -- and we’re enthralled by it. But not because we’re demented voyeurs. See, there’s a difference between Padilha’s use of violence and that of most other directors’: Padilha's violence has a point.
Rather than cataloging scenes of horrific violence just for violence’s sake, Padilha uses them as a way to explore the gray-hued realms of moral ambiguity. A close-up study of the Rio drug wars, Elite Squad's depiction of violence is like that in Pulp Fiction, but without the kitsch. There is nothing humorous about the blunt, unapologetic brutality on display, with cops torturing teenage suspects and adolescent drug dealers shooting at their would-be captors. And just as abrasive is the camera work, which forces the viewer to confront state-inflicted torture head-on. Indeed, Padilha throws our obsession with law and order back in our faces, making us examine the consequences of our desires, rather than allowing us to maintain our usual safely ensconced distance. You can almost hear him saying, “See, see, this is what torture looks like.”
The film revolves around Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura), the anti-hero protagonist, and his frustrated attempts to leave violent law enforcement behind for a quiet life with his wife and newborn child. He's a leader of the elite BOPE Rio de Janiero police squad, but before he can quit, he must find a replacement who can survive the rigorous lifestyle and psychological demands of the BOPE (Nascimento frequently suffocates suspects in plastic bags and beats them within inches of their lives). The BOPE are like a cross between a Squat Team and the Marines -- only that they seemingly don’t have to answer to any authorities as they shoot, torture, and maim suspects at will. Examining the new BOPE recruits during their Full Metal Jacket-like training sessions, Nascimento narrows his search down to two men: the capable but hot-headed Neto (Caio Junqueria) and the cerebral, reserved Matias (Andre Ramiro). But the personal flaws of both men complicate his decision.
Yet, although the actors give laudable performances, each character is less a fully realized individual than a representation of a type. However, this is no slight to the film. At its core, this is a film first and foremost about clashing ideologies and intractable cycles of corruption. The police steal from the state and arrested drug dealers, and the drug dealers bribe officials. Everyone has a vested, monetary interest in keeping the decrepit system stalled in the muck as it currently is -- everyone, except the BOPE. However, the BOPE use such severe tactics, the viewer can’t completely consider their aims as noble either. They may not be able to be bought off, but the BOPE kill many more people than the pushers they’re trying to arrest.
What makes the film a true work of art is its beautiful ambiguity. While Padilha’s characters, especially Nascimento, view the world in terms of black-and-white morality, the director withholds his own judgment. Someone who firmly believes in torture would find much in the film to support his views, but so would a person adamantly opposed to such practices. Padilha doesn’t appear to believe in heroes. Rather, the film suggests that we’re all villains. We all contribute in our own way, however far removed, to the problems that beset and corrode our societies. Our crimes may not be major, we may not be clasping plastic bags around the heads of suspects, but if we’re not buying or selling drugs, we at least support the political systems that allow these crimes to occur. And although Elite Squad bleakly avoids positing any solutions, it certainly is good at pointing out the problems. We can't stop the drug trade if we don't eradicate poverty, and we can't eradicate poverty with under-funded organizations, vicious police methods, and selfish disinterest.
One of the best examples occurs during a scene in which Matias attends a class at law school. His fellow classmates, privileged sons and daughters of the nation's elite, have the luxury of being socialists because of their wealth (which they don’t seem all that willing to share). They start a loud in-class debate about the oppressive tactics of Rio's police force, one woman even complaining that her car had been pulled over and searched without cause. Matias, struggling to make his voice heard over the clamor, attempts to correct his classmate's sheltered misconceptions. He doesn't have their education or their money, but he has actually experienced what it’s like to chase a gun-toting drug lord down a dark alley. He points out the difficulty of trying to stop a drug trade that is financed and utilized by the nation's wealthy – the very people sitting around him. Yet, even as we see the validity of Matias' argument and come to detest the self-satisfied drug use of his classmates, we are also aware of the ruthlessness of Matias’ tactics. He can't fathom why the excessive force used by the police would ever be a negative. He firmly believes the end of cleaning up Rio’s streets justifies any means.
Although Elite Squad struggles to fully comprehend the most controversial topics of our era, the film never becomes didactic nor is it high-art allegory like Children of Men. But the film does have a larger cultural interpretation: the BOPE seem to be the cinematic embodiment of George W. Bush's foreign policy. They act with the no rules and no hold's bar, with a shoot-first-ask-questions-later mentality, one that Bush has exhibited in his nearly eight years of mismanagement and bravado-filled governance. The film begs us to ask: Do we have to descend to the level of barbarism to expunge societal vices? Indeed, just like with Bush, Elite Squad leaves us pondering whether all the wasted lives, all the blood and destruction have made life any better for anyone.