03/28/2008 02:48 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

From the Berlinale: Jose Padilha's 'Elite Squad'

It is, perhaps, a necessary film: José Padilha's "Elite Squad," winner of the grand prize Golden Bear at the Berlinale, tells the story of the ongoing underground "war" between drug dealers in Brazils' favelas and Bope soldiers, the elite fighter squad of the Rio Military Police. We witness two hours of extreme violence--incursions, grenades, shoot-outs-- from the perspective of captain Nascimento--and learn what most of us probably do not know, that killing the poor is part of Brazil national policy.

Padhila, director of the winning film at the Berlinale, greeted us warmly, in his grey ski hat and open handshake, after the premiere screening. He was eager to speak about the political importance of this film. "The film tries to show reality as it is, through the eyes of someone who is flawed in many ways. The character believes that violence can be solved with violence. We create the violence ourselves, by making drugs illegal, by having a secret police. We create the rules of the game. In Brazil, if you are a cop, you make a low salary, you work in a corrupt environment, you are violent."

This action film, co-written by the acclaimed scriptwriter of "City of God", Bráulio Mantovani, has also been seen, not as a denunciation of police violence, but as its sensationalist celebration: a chance to make a fast Hollywood-style thriller (well-financed by American producer Harvey Weinstein, founder of Miramax) that would appeal to mass audiences. One Brazilian journalist at the festival was furious at all the positive attention given the film. "'Elite Squad' is politically indecent. It makes violence exciting and dangerous. In Brazil, this film is now a top box office hit. You should have seen the reactions of the audience in Rio! People laughed and applauded when the police blew up the dealers." The professional film magazine Variety seconded this opinion: writer Jay Weissberg accused Padilha's film of being fascist, creating empathy with the police.

Padilha countered these claims: "Of course I disapprove of police violence. If you show a street kid influenced by his environment, you are a communist, like I was considered when I made Bus 174 [his documentary about a violent hijacking of a bus in Rio]. If you do the same with the police, you are a right-winger."

Padilha is probably right when he says anyone who sees the film as actually supporting the police is off-base: neither party seems particularly appealing. This indeed was my own problem with the film: its storytelling is from the surface. The motivations, complexities, and basic humanity of the particular characters are missing. I felt nothing to which I could, as they say in French, accrocher. The movie passed for me as a series of static violent events, with flat characters and no development. Moreover, it just seemed plain hopeless: and some edge of humanity, even if negatively depicted, as in the extraordinary Luis Bunuel film "Los Olvidados", can help inspire desire for change.

I also could not quite put my finger on Padilha's specific political vision--if he had one--besides his quite welcome critique of middle class do-gooders. (The film, in an unusual move, has a side-plot about pot-smoking college students who want to help the poor, ignoring their own complicity in the problem).

"What change is possible for Brazil?" I asked Padilha.

"They should pay the police more. You know they only make 400 dollars a month. Plus they should legalize drugs. Whoever is buying drugs is funding the favelas. If you legalize drugs, you no longer have the problem. Look at the United States and Prohibition. Alcohol was once illegal and look at the violence then."

As for political parties, left or right wing, Padilha said it was all the same. "Change in Brazil? It has nothing to do with ideology. We have had communists, right-wingers, socialists, the situation remains the same. I like to see it as a game. Change the rules."

In the course of the conversation, Padilha's point remained consistent: "Pay police more; legalize drugs." It seemed a very limited perception of the "rules of the game" that make favelas and police brutality a reality in today's Brazil.

Ironically, Padilha's lead actor, Wagner Moura, who plays Nascimento, had a far wider perspective of the issue. "The problem is not the salary of the police! It's education. The police and the drug dealers in Brazil are the same people: they come from the favelas. The education is poor. They need books, teachers. People join the army as a chance to have a job. They see the police on tv, and they join."

Moura, a softspoken earnest man with a large silver wedding ring and an intent look in his dark eyes, leaned forward and confided that he personally knew what he was talking about. He came from a poor family himself--although not so poor, he admitted, as they always had enough to eat. He himself had gone to the public schools, until his father made a bit more money, and he got to go to private school. It was for this reason--education--that he himself got out of poverty and managed to launch his successful acting career.

It is a strange film, "Elite Squad," both revolutionary and conservative. A final odd consideration is how it fits in the international film market. All three Brazilian films in the Berlinale feature the favellas. As the angry Brazilian journalist noted, "When it comes to Brazil, that is the only image people want to consume." Padilha himself agreed. "My movies do not get picked up if not about favellas and poverty. Festivals and distributors tend to pick up violent movies. This has nothing to do with Brazil. Violence works with drama, because drama has to do with violence."

A revealing comment about the motivations of his own production.

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