Elite Squad: The Enemy Within06 February, 2012
“Despite the many similarities to reality, this film is a work of fiction”
There is something about Rio de Janeiro’s favelas which makes for cinematic gold. Brazil’s writers and directors seamlessly combine well-stylised action with documentary-grade realism and biting social relevance to produce a franchise of hits in their own little universe, which please home audiences as much as foreign ones.
Elite Squad 2 (also known as Elite Squad: The Enemy Within) is the latest of this chain, which started with City of God in 2002, and has broken a string of records to become the most watched and highest grossing film in Brazilian history. It continues the story of the first film through its main protagonist, Nascimento, who after commanding a bungled attempt to regain control in a rioting prison, is relieved of his duties as a BOPE officer only to find himself promoted to even higher echelons:
“I had never had a computer before. And now I was the Undersecretary of Intelligence. I was in charge of all the wiretaps in Rio de Janeiro.”
This promotion is a device to move on the director’s critical viewfinder to explore the problems at the higher levels of Rio’s police and drug enforcement units.
But also as social issues move on, so do the situations depicted. We are shown how BOPE’s successful actions to stem the flow of drug money force corrupt cops to become more hands-on with their extortion of the slum’s inhabitants. The gangs are pushed out and the militia, comprised of moonlighting corrupt police, step in to racketeer, provide fake cable and eventually gain political clout.
The director, Jose Padilha, sees this as the third film in a trilogy about the state, poverty and violence starting with his hostage situation documentary, Bus 174. The first Elite Squad focused on how the state creates corrupt and violent acts through its indifference to law enforcement agencies, and now this sequel seeks to explain why the state is so badly governed.
This perspective has caused the film to attract a lot of comparisons to TV’s The Wire. The way it opens out to show different systematic failures at different levels of both sides of the organised crime problem certainly is worthy of praise but comparisons to HBO’s modern classic are probably a tad too hasty for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, the problems in The Wire have a lot to do with people being more concerned with their own promotion or the possibility of an easy life than making a fuss for the greater good. In this way, The Wire has some very rich and deep characters whose motivation is always more complicated than the mere pursuit of money. The situation in Brazil has a lot to do with the low earnings of the police and the temptation of dirty money to supplement a meagre income.
Secondly, deep and rich characters, along with detailed and systematic plots, are more easily generated, and better dealt with, when you have 100 hours or so of screen time to play with. Elite Squad 2 is just under 2 hours, and it is still ambitious enough to try and attempt a great deal.
This is perhaps where the film’s few failings lie. The parts of the story handling important social issues like BOPE’s drug war ‘success’ are rather rushed, while the attempt to develop a human side to Nascimento leads to a few cringing soap opera moments where you might wish the next few gunshots to come a scene early.
Personally though, I think that Elite Squad 2 can easily overcome these concerns because of its closeness to life. Both the main characters who share a love interest and son are based on real people: former BOPE officer, Rodrigo Pimentel and State Representative, Marcelo Freixo (both of whom make cameos in scenes with their fictional self). This closeness to reality is also apparent through all favela films where they have used real people in place of actors and real locations instead of sets or CGI. They were all completed within a fraction of the budget and in a fraction of the production time of any Hollywood blockbuster, and it’s this immediacy with the subject matter and lack of regard for the sheen and cliché of American cinema which makes them stand out from glitzy mass-produced cartoon violence and pushes them into the strange hinterland between truthful reconstruction and dramatic fiction.
With the popularity of these films, their comparative cheapness and their startling originality, I don’t see any reason why the next critically acclaimed TV show couldn’t be a huge hit series from South America the next time around.
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