Last week I found myself wearing a borrowed suit jacket and striped shirt at the gala premiere of a new Brazilian movie called “Tropa de Elite.” I’d heard it was the best movie of the Rio Film Festival, and getting in felt like some sort of accomplishment. There was a red carpet and mobs of people outside with cell phone cameras taking pictures of the stars. I’ll admit I found all this sort of charming and new, since I’ve been to very few events in my life with even a whiff of this glamor. There was a brief opening ceremony, then the lights dimmed, and the film began. I feel compelled to write something about this movie, if only because I have a feeling it is going to be big—and not just in Brazil, where it has been widely available on pirated DVD for more than three months, and is already a hit. It’s very likely going to be big in the US, where it will surely be marketed as the newest version of “City of God,” and add to the list of films that paint a bleak picture of life in the slums of the developing world. For the record, I thought “City of God” was a work of art: yes, it was a drug-filled, hyper-violent story of the favelas of Rio, but it had humanity. This new film is very similar, though without the art, minus the elegant narrative structure, with a jerkier camera style, and a much higher body count. But that’s not my problem with the movie either. Violence in film is fine, often necessary, but “Tropa de Elite” is something else: an apologia for torture. It is Abu Ghraib set in Rio, Guantánamo in the favelas. And it’s coming soon to a theater near you: Harvey Weinstein is distributing this film in the US, and he must be very much behind this project, because he flew to Rio to be at the premiere. I watched one of Hollywood’s most important players mingle with the Brazilian glitterati, collecting their congratulations. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
The film is about a Captain Beto Nascimento, a stressed-out father-to-be, and member of an anti-narcotics task force called BOPE. BOPE’s thankless task in the crime-ridden city is not only to confront the drug dealers who control the favelas, but also the corrupt police officers who abet their trade. Ah, an anti-corruption program—we can all get behind that, can’t we? They accomplish this work with heavy weaponry, ready trigger-fingers, and investigative techniques that include savage beatings, simulated drownings with plastic bags, and threatened sodomy, among others. Not only does the movie have you rooting for this sort of hyper-violence, BOPE NEVER TORTURES OR KILLS ANYONE WHO ISN’T GUILTY. That’s right. In the entire movie, in two hours worth of summary executions and deafening gun battles, not one innocent is killed by BOPE, and their tactics are consistently justified. Sure, and everyone at Guantánamo is Al-Qaeda. This movie will be sold in the US as a window into some crude Latin American reality, but if the script included aliens and a boy wizard with a magic wand, “Tropa de Elite” couldn’t be more fantastical. And while BOPE tortures, intimidates, and murders a vast array of unequivocally ruthless sociopaths, those who question police violence are ridiculed—they are portrayed throughout the film as out of touch with reality, as a bunch of pothead, bleeding-heart rich kids. There isn’t a single legitimate voice raised against BOPE or its tactics, and the squad itself is represented as being able to police itself, to rein in its violent tendencies when necessary. In one scene, as BOPE goes door to door looking for Baiano, a local drug dealer who has made the mistake of killing one their men, they roust a sleeping man from his humble, dirt-floor room, guns drawn, and then politely ask if they may search his home. The director plays the man’s obvious terror—and the audience’s expectation of explosive violence—for a laugh. More nauseating is the training camp that Nascimento leads: School of the Americas 2.0, a barbaric series of humiliations effected upon would-be recruits, men who emerge desensitized killers, all, of course, completely justified in the context of the film. Fighting crime, the film says, isn’t pretty. It’s alright to kill poor people, according to “Tropa de Elite,” because they’re probably guilty of something.
Imagine if the Caviles of Guatemala, that frightening death squad responsible for the deaths of thousands, that terrifying heavily-armed, blood-thirsty faction of a narco-state—imagine if they had a recruiting film that was going to be shown in American theaters. Or Haiti’s Ton-Ton Macoute, or Colombia’s paramilitaries, or … Imagine if all the horrors of Abu Ghraib were given a slick Hollywood treatment—Fox’s “24” but far bloodier, the same crooked ethics of George W. Bush’s war on terror transposed to an exotic tropical locale. This is “Tropa de Elite,” and it’s coming soon.
The film was shown at two locations simultaneously—the Hollywood style premiere that I attended, and down the street at an overflow theater set up for regular folks. Reports said that there a portion of the audience began shouting, “Reactionaries!” at the screen and stormed out. I wish I had.