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By KJ Doughton | September 25, 2008

The enthusiastic, mile-a-minute voice of “Elite Squad” director Jose Padilha erupts from my telephone. The filmmaker is traveling in a car, somewhere in Rio. “We’re going through a tunnel,” he warns, “so you might lose the connection.”

I never lose the connection. In the time it takes Padilha to commute through the passageway, he’s provided an impassioned, chest-pounding monologue about his ambitious, three-part examination of Rio De Janeiro’s criminal justice system. Beginning with 2005’s “Bus 174,” which followed the hijacking of a commuter vehicle, Padilha’s planned trilogy continues with “Elite Squad,” and will be concluded with a future film.

“Have you seen my earlier film ‘Bus 174’?” he asks. I sheepishly admit to having missed his highly touted, Emmy winning documentary that collected 23 awards worldwide.

“Well,” he laments with an audible sigh, “it’s hard to talk about ‘Elite Squad’ without your seeing ‘Bus 174.’ But let’s continue anyway.”

I’ve never seen Padilha. However, I already admire his “carpe diem” attitude. The director holds nothing back. He’s both politically aware and emotionally uninhibited, with a sense of humor to boot. I ask him whether it’s fair that filmgoers associate Brazil with brutal favelas full of roaming street gangs and amoral cops, based on “Elite Squad,” and Fernando Meirelles’ “City of God.” Are these depictions of reality, or are they simply stereotypes?

It’s a two-part question, however. I also ask Padilha if Brazilians, in turn, perceive America in terms of its popular film icons. Do his fellow countrymen think America consists entirely of badass he-men like Rambo, or John McClane of “Die Hard?”

“There are two things to take into account,” he proclaims. I can’t see Padilha, but I envision him lifting an index finger to accent his point as he’s careening down thoroughfares in Rio.

“Meirelles and I make all sorts of films. I make films on the Amazon Rainforest, and many other aspects of Brazil. So if you look at filmmaking at a local level, films produced here don’t stereotype Brazil. What stereotypes Brazil is what film distributors choose to distribute abroad. They pick up films with favelas and violence.

“I guess this is the same with any country. I have many friends who are filmmakers in the U.S., who make independent films and documentaries. Those movies don’t get into Brazil at all. The same thing your distributors do, our distributors do. I know American cinema – and it’s not only what we have access to.”

I detect a pause in conversation, inhale, and prepare to ask my next question. But Padilha isn’t done. He hasn’t even described “the second thing to take into account,” which is that “Elite Squad,” “Bus 174,” and “City of God” are not stereotypes.

“These films pretty much reflect aspects of Brazilian reality,” he explains. “’Die Hard,’ in contrast, is a fiction. You don’t see people blowing up cars or taking over buildings. But ‘Elite Squad’ is strongly based in reality. In fact, reality is maybe worse that what’s in the film. It’s kind of like American movies about the Vietnam War. Many of those are very truthful, like ‘Platoon,’ for instance.”

The core of “Elite Squad” involves the BOPE, an intense branch of super-police called in by the Brazilian government to clean up crimes that more conventional cops can’t handle. When I ask if the BOPE can be compared to American SWAT teams, Padilha clearly differentiates the two. “SWAT units are trained to rescue people,” he describes. “BOPE are trained to raid favelas and kill drug dealers.”

Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura) is a shell-shocked veteran of this brutal band of law enforcers. He’s frighteningly effective at his work. But he’s tired of losing shards of his soul with each fatal shotgun blast or barbaric torture (“bagging,” in which suspects are nearly suffocated to extract information, is a common police tactic in “Elite Squad.”). Jittery nerves prompt anxiety attacks and the downing of psychotropic medications. With a pregnant wife waiting ever less patiently in the wings, Nascimento begins sifting through the police ranks for a worthy successor.

Two military police cadets earn Nascimento’s attention. One, Neto (Andre Ramiro), is a stocky idealist with a wild-eyed, Travis Bickle stare who can’t grasp the concept of compromise. Moonlighting as a law student, Matias (Caio Junqueira) is another impressive cadet who finds his relationships with liberal college classmates incompatible with a career of toting guns and cracking heads.

Meanwhile, Nascimento is assigned “Operation Holiness,” in which he must “clean up” the favelas surrounding a hotel where the Pope is slated to crash during an appearance in Rio. Is it any stretch of the imagination that people will die in order that the Pope gets a good night’s rest?

I ask Padilha if “Operation Holiness” was based on an actual event. “Everything in ‘Elite Squad’ is based on reality,” he insists. “’Operation Holiness’ happened exactly how it did in the movie. The outcome was worse than what was portrayed in movie. Not only did police kill people in order for the Pope to sleep for two nights in the slum. After the Pope left, another faction of drug lords, knowing that many local drug dealers were killed, raided the area. ‘Operation Holiness’ is a historical fact. We choose to use it in the movie as a way of saying how crazy and absurd it is. That’s why we set the film in 1987. It is the most absurd thing I found in my research that had happened with the BOPE.”

“Elite Squad” might be new to American audiences, but it’s enjoyed a long history in Brazil as a bootleg DVD. “We had two foreign distributors involved in the financing of ‘Elite Squad,’” explains Padilha, “including the Weinstein Company and Universal. We had to produce a rough-cut once in a while of subtitled DVD’s, so they could follow up on what was going on. We were supplying the movie as we were cutting it. One was stolen. So out of this one DVD became a virus phenomenon. Local Brazilian magazines hired a pooling company that did expensive research. They found twenty million Brazilians had seen bootleg copies – without any marketing investment!

“For me, it was a nightmare though, because I thought nobody would see it at theaters. But it was a best selling movie at theaters anyhow. But I didn’t know that would happen. On the other hand, as a director, it’s great to make a movie that communicates spontaneously like this.”

Getting back to the concept of popular cinema shaping outsiders’ perception of a culture, Padilha points out the lack of cop characters in Brazilian films. “’Until ‘Elite Squad,’ there had never been a movie in Brazil where the main character was a policeman. Never ever. Which was crazy, because if you look at American, French, or German movies, the protagonist is often a cop.

“About a year ago, someone asked me why no-one had ever made a movie about a cop in Brazil. I told them, if you watch ‘Elite Squad,’ you will understand why.”

“Elite Squad” has generated considerable controversy over its graphic depictions of police brutality. Perhaps, however, the hullabaloo stems more from the film’s surprising objectivity. In Padilha’s universe, everyone is flawed and somewhat corrupt. The college kids fraternize with vicious drug lords, by smoking the dealers’ weed and thereby subsidizing their weapons. The drug lords enjoy trapping traitors in walls of tires, dousing them in gasoline, then torching the whole screaming, writhing mess of flesh and rubber.

The cops are pathetically corrupt and self-serving. In one darkly comic sequence, “Elite Squad” shows one lazy precinct dumping crime scene bodies into another division’s territory (they don’t want contend with the bothersome paperwork). When the dumped-on precinct gets wind of the scheme, it loads up these misplaced corpses and plops them back into their original locations. Call it a macabre version of musical chairs.

Then there’s Captain Nascimento, who knows how tainted this universe is – and is powerless to escape its noxious cloud. Early in the film, we empathize with his Elite Squad. When Matias’ college peers denounce the cops during an in-class discussion on ethics, he sees red. And who wouldn’t be frustrated as their efforts to uphold the law are thwarted by “socially conscious” students and on-the-take police peers? Assigned to the precinct motor pool, Neto’s resentment escalates as he tries, in vain, to repair vehicles. He dismantles a corrupt cop’s motorcycle long enough to accumulate the peer’s extortion money, then uses the loot to repair his neglected automobiles. It’s pathetic, sad, depressing… and kind of funny.

However, the film’s finale shows the BOPE embracing nasty, inhuman tactics to settle scores. These images create an unsettling vibe, because we both understand and are repelled by the ruthless means they use to justify an end. Call it “Dirty Harry,” Rio-style.

Padihla states that he was under considerable pressure by backers to change his uncompromising final scene. To reveal the upsetting ending would be to spoil the film, but its stubborn director sees it this way: “If the ending (had been softened up), that would solve everything in the theater. But day-to-day life will remain the same. I think the filmmaker has a responsibility not to do that.”

The director chuckles. It’s a friendly, resigned laugh without a hint of cynicism, suggesting Padilha’s awareness of how absurdly terrifying the whole favela crime dynamic has become. I still have no idea what the filmmaker looks like. But based on his intelligent, humor-laced awareness of the human condition, I get a feeling that he would be a terrific drinking buddy after a hard day’s work.

Some might say that Padilha’s willingness to present the “Elite Squad” canvas as a complex web of equally flawed subsystems is, pardon the pun, a cop-out. Others have labeled him a fascist. Personally, I find this categorization hard to swallow. Padilha is an equal opportunity offender who paints cops, dealers, and everyone in-between in complex shades of gray. He’s going for the big picture.

“I don’t think as a writer and director that my job to give audiences a pre-established set of values to evaluate what this film is showing. I don’t need to show audiences that torture is bad. Everyone knows that. My goal is to show causal relations and not to judge them. I don’t need the bad guy to die or the good guy to win.

“I don’t have a political bias. I am not a Marxist; neither am I a right wing thinker. I don’t think about things in this way. My movies have no ideology in that sense. But they generate a lot of controversy, because people always expect you to take a position in relation to one thing or another. And I don’t, you see.

“If you read the French papers, ‘Elite Squad’ is very controversial. Some people think it’s left wing, Marxist, or a criticism of Brazil. I got a sense that if you don’t make a movie that’s either clearly Marxist or right wing, or has some moral perspective, people find it hard to cope with. It’s difficult to understand what it is.”

The fact that “Elite Squad” takes a bird’s eye, macro view of crime in Brazil while refusing to take a subjective stance on the politics or morality onscreen might suggest that Padilha is the filmmaking equivalent of a mousy accountant, or a bloodless statistician. It’s an inaccurate suggestion. “I’ll send you some of the French reviews,” he insists, embodying a talent for spontaneous human connection so common to moviemakers.

When I tell Padilha that the interview must be cut short in order that I pick up my son from school, he abruptly changes the focus of conversation away from “Elite Squad.”

“How old is your kid?” he asks. “I have a little one, too. Go pick him up, man.”

He laughs, and I laugh.

“Elite Squad” paints reality in some pretty brutal shades of red and black. But right here, right now, life is good.

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