Tuesday 29 December 2015

On Free to Air TV - Elite Squads - Barrie Pattison unearths two Brazilian specials late night on SBS

Tropa de Elite/ Elite Squad  & Tropa de Elite 2: O Inimigo Agora é Outro/ Elite
Squad 2: The Enemy Within

So I skimmed through the SBS program for the week and they had something Brazilian called Elite Squad as the late, late film. Well, being a curious insomniac movie completist I am the target audience for such presentations. I tuned in and it wasn’t long before my jaw was hanging open. In contrasty colour José Padilha (previously director of the festival hit documentary Bus 174, Brazil 2002) offers grim faced star Wagner Moura narrating as commander of the elite Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais (BOPE, the Special Police Operations Battalion of the Rio de Janeiro Military Police). He wants to spend time with his wife and new baby and is searching for his replacement as the Pope’s nearing visit dictates a clean-up of the hill top favelas made no go areas by murderous drug gangs.

We’ve seen this juxtaposition of the prosperous ground level privileged and the desperate slums in South American film before, as early as Bruno Barreto’s 1978 Amor Bandido or in City of God. Here the film flash backs contrast police recruits hard head Caio Junqueira and glasses wearing law student André Ramiro. The fact that Ramiro is black is never an issue. They find law enforcement seething with corruption bankrolled by kick backs from the drug dealers.

Ramiro’s law degree studies compromise him when his fellow students are smoking the dealers’ pot and the privileged class white girl from the charity NGO he made it with turns out to be a dope runner’s mistress. The breaking point comes for Junqueira when a distraught mother can’t bury her dead drug look-out son because the body can’t be located while the cops shift cadavers out of their jurisdictions to stop the murders appearing on their unit statistics.

The two room mate cops have been put to work in the police garage, which is near inoperable because corrupt officers sell the motors out of new cars and replace them with old clapped-out ones. Junqueira hits on the plan to buy the spare parts they need by putting the commander’s car out of action, so that his usual pay off collection is delayed and the duo send in their own vehicle to get the cash. What’s the commander going to do - call the police?

This ends up with the pair transferred to canteen duties and their master mechanic peeling potatoes. Part time brothel owner police lieutenant Wilhelm Cortaz is sure the cops, who want him to go with them on the next pay off pick up, plan on doing him in over taking the bribe money, so the pair set off to cover him with sniper fire from the opposite hill, only to find themselves out gunned.

At this point - flash back to the opening - the  Elite Squad arrive and save them with their own merciless attack. The boys are hooked and sign up for the BOPE selection process which makes marine training in An Officer and A Gentleman or Vietnam boot camp in Tigerland seem genteel. The brutal recruitment procedure usually eliminates all but eight of the hundred applicants. This time it goes down to three. The instructors deliberately target corrupt trainees, crushing Cortaz. Their preparation includes abseiling the cliff face and live fire exercises in the real favela alley ways, where Junqueira proves too gung ho.

They move on the slums and the retaliation takes out Junqueira when he delivers the glasses Ramiro had promised a local kid. Finding  the BOPE skull  tattoo on Junqueira’s body, the gang bangers realize they are doomed - securing the danger area  for the Pope now forgotten.

The dope gangs are equally appalled to find the NGO had a cop among them. They shoot and burning tyre necklace a NGO couple, causing a protest march. The girl friend tries to help, getting their promise that they won’t injure the fugitive killer’s girl - cut and the squad have a blood filled plastic bag over her face to get his whereabouts. The unit raids the favela and takes down the dealer, who lies on the ground pleading not to be shot in the face so that his body can be shown in an open casket.

Twisted time structure, high contrast greenish colour, maximum violence and cynicism. This is rivetting.

I’m still digesting it when next week SBS slap on the sequel in the same small hours time slot. We pick up seven (?) years later with hero Moura again narrating as the BOPE methods (“a police force with a skull for its symbol”) are the subject of a condemnatory lecture theater session by liberal reformer Irandhir Santos. The situation is even worse now that armed raids have all but cleared the slum areas of the drug gangs, leaving the corrupt police militia to take over the rackets. There’s now an  alliance of the populist media, the governor going for re-election and the bent coppers. Maura’s ex-wife Maria Ribeiro has married Santos and they are raising Moura’s son.

Shift to Bangui prison, controlled by the murderous street gangs who continue their feuds inside. One lot revolts, finds an opposing leader and sets on fire the cell full of bedding where they have him. The prisoners demand Santos as negotiator and he goes in without a Kevlar vest and manages to stabilize the situation but the Skulls have been called (“BOPA doesn’t give a shit”) with Ramiro in charge and the CCTV shows them waiting guns leveled behind the door the prisoners tried to smash to get more weapons - very Fritz Lang.
When the door is opened there is a massacre leaving the armed prisoners dead and Santos with blood spatter all over his Human Rights shirt.

Outraged Santos is on about social cleansing but the public love the TV coverage of the jail shoot-out, stoked by the fat rabble rousing news commentator who does dance steps on his show, so the governor promotes Moura (“I fell upwards”) to sub-commander of intelligence, where he is given control of ‘phone intercepts. Meanwhile he is growing away from his son, who accepts the outlook of Santos, Moura’s biggest critic. However Moura is called in to retrieve the boy and his girl friend from jail for a marijuana offense for which the kid takes the blame to spare the girl. Father and son get to bond in a judo work out.

The police station in the uncontrolled area of Tanque is held up and their weapons taken. The Tanque station commander has spotted the fact that the raiders’ knowledge of procedure - and their boots - indicated rogue police rather than drug gangs. In retaliation Ramiro and his men secretly replace the bought police at a station in an area where the heavies expect no resistance and gun them down. The captured gang leader reveals the truth to Ramiro who vows vengeance, so he is shot in the back by the crooked cop, in front of Commander Cortaz, who considered him the friend who had saved his life - surprise twist disposes of the central character of the first film. Think of him as a Brazilian Han Solo.

The poor’s most valuable asset is not the protection money they pay out for police monopoly cable TV and bottle water but their vote in the coming election. The girl journalist on the case tracks down the house where they heavies have stored the stolen weapons and election material together. She is ‘phoning Santos when the bad hats come back and rape and murder her - grim scene of an impatient heavy pulling the teeth out of her charred skull.

Moura gets the copy of her last ‘phone call off the illegal intercept he has placed on Santos’ phone and takes the recording away before his superiors come for it. He realizes that they will try to off Santos, who is with Moura’s ex wife and his son, and he waits for them
taking out the hit man’s car with his pistol, though the boy is shot in the exchange of fire. The scene of reduced-to-a-Suit Moura picking up the machine gun brought by the skulls and blasting rounds into the nasties is cheer worthy.

The resulting publicity returns Santos to parliament and he gives the rostrum in the House of
Representatives to Moura, who declares two third of the members he is speaking to be corrupt. Same gritty hi-con look with even better production values. Imposing visuals - the chopper over flying the kids playground or the final airials of Brazilia as still corrupt survivor whore monger Cortaz flies in.

I’ve gone into surprise killing detail on these because they are unlikely to get any real distribution. I can’t find them on SBS on Demand but, for the determined, they are on You Tube in good English sub-titled copies. We can see that José Padilha’s admiration goes out to the skulls, glimpsed drilling impeccably in their black uniforms and advancing under fire, leaving the regular police to cower behind them. Pot smoking do gooders are going to be burned alive by the impoverished mob they believe they are helping. Ramirez  notes
contemptuously when the population turns out in the street over their deaths. “There are no demonstrations when policemen are killed.” The free press is a clown TV newsman and and an editor who refuses to follow up when one of his own is killed. Padilha’s solution is a not all that plausible parliamentary alliance between the shoot ‘em up lot and the reformers.

I was feeling superior about discovering these outstanding, gritty, obscure action pieces. Not indicated as a repeat, this must be presumed to be the local premier. Then I found they were the most successful Brazilian films of all time, the monster hit in the Spanish language market and Berlin Grand Prix winner. Here they just sink into the void as most of the outside the festival net material does. It’s disturbing but not surprising that the pair reached us without promotion, turning up as small hours movies on SBS the week that our
multi cultural broadcaster was busy trailering it’s series on Walt Disney. The Herald TV Guide for the day featured Will Ferrel in Elf

In the real world the Elite Squad films were reviewed widely, usually by people who called them fascist & cited The Godfather. The movie characters themselves dismiss the comparison with Mafia, the hoods saying the Italians eat lasagna while their lot chow down on rice and beans. This one is very ethno specific, complete with samba street carnivals. By contrast to the dismissive official coverage, bloggers - usually English speaking South Americans - frequently nominated them as the best films ever made

Place the films instead in a sequence where the answer to disorder is to send in the troops. Think President Walter Huston having the army stand gangsters against the wall in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty and shoot them in the 1933 MGM Gabriel Over the White House. Phil Karlson’s 1955 Phenix City Story ends in martial law but it introduces the caution against vigilante-ism. Elio Petri’s 1970 Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto / Investigation of  Citizen Above Suspicion  is a caution against the excesses of state control and the military, as is Daniele Vicari’s splendid 2012 Diaz - Non pulire questo sangue /Diaz - Don’t Clean Up This Blood.

I have no way of knowing how accurate the two Padhilha films are. Brazilians I asked endorse them but, whether it is sensationalized fiction or documentary actuality, the sure crafted savage indignation of the production gives them plausibility. Tropa de Elite 1 & 2 make the movie product we are offered here insipid by comparison. This was the week Star Wars 7 opened in the multiplexes and The Bélier Family was in the art cinemas. What kind of film is going to be made in an environment where this is the frame of reference? Answer - the kind that gets made here. 

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