Skip to main content

Pro-Torture Film Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

PUBLISHED: October 10, 2007

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.


Edu Constantinos's picture
Edu Constantinos · 15 years ago
My comment is the following: If you people lived in a slum, or very close to one, like myself, you would see the guys from BOPE as heroes. I am an old man, and have been beaten twice by drug peddlers; the torture scenes that you saw in the movie, and thought so shocking, outlaws practice against people all the time, in order to obtain the full amount of their bank accounts, in order to discover informers, or just because they are sadistic. I insist, if you lived where I live, the officers of BOPE would be your heroes. Of course, I am not crazy. I take part in protest against police violence, and close my door whenever the drug dealers place us under curfew (yes, that happens quite often). My neighbor, a young woman who has been raped many times by outlaws, also take part in protests against police violence, since drug dealers require us to do it. However, she told me, and I concur, slum dwellers know who are their heroes. You may ask how BOPE officers succeed in entering the slums unoticed; I can provide an answer to that: Dwellers feign that they do not see them, they protect the police officers. I have seen the movie many times, of course; more than once I have witnessed standing ovation. However there is one thing that the film does not portray well: The scene of the inocent owner of an invaded house. The police invaded my house only four times during my life. In all occasions they have been very polite, and made it clear that they mean no harm; if I am not an outlaw, I do not have any reason to be afraid of the police. I apologize for the poor English that I learned with Mormon missionaries (LDS).
Daniel Alarcón's picture
Thank you to everyone who has read the piece and taken the time to chime in. I’m impressed and humbled by the breadth and sensitvity of the comments people have left on this blog. I can’t thank you all enough. A few thoughts come to mind: I don’t agree with the notion that one has to have lived in the favelas in order to have an opinion about this film. You’ll have a hard time convincing a novelist that he or she is only allowed to write about the things he/she knows first hand. That’s just a caveat. I won’t present my stats here, or try to justify or explain why I think I should be allowed to have an opinion. I will say this: I have been shaken down by cops; I have sat with a friend who wept as he told me how his brother was killed by police; I have seen firsthand the effects of state-sponsored terror, as well as the impacts of crime, drugs, and lawlessness on the lives of hard-working, honest people who just want to live with dignity. I have no sympathy for those who terrorize honest people–it makes no difference to me whether the terrorizers are street thugs or wear police uniforms. And Edu, while I appreciate your point of view, I don’t think all favela dwellers would agree with you. If they did, the movie wouldn’t be so controversial. In any case, I’ll repeat, much of my original argument was about extrapolating the message of the movie, placing it in a wider context. I’m anticipating (or trying to anticioate) how a film like this will play in the US, when it comes here. The BOPE are heroes to some. To many, in fact. Ok, I see that. And I recognize that the lawlessness of the favelas is overwhelming, intractable, and seemingly endless. But look ahead: what’s around the corner? A group of highly trained, heavily armed super-police with carte-blanche to enforce laws as they see fit, with whatever level of violence they deem necessary. Let’s say the intentions are good, and the conditions in the favelas so extreme that there are simply no other reasonable options. Ok, but with so much power, so much weaponry, how long until BOPE is just one more gang? And my second question would be (and I should add that this is an honest question, not a rhetorical, or polemical one): Is BOPE working? Has police corruption gone down as a result of its work? Has street violence?
Iceman's picture
Iceman · 15 years ago
People, I’ve seen some people talking about the movie on internet. I don’t want to critize points of view but.. A guy that lives in the first world with a good job shouldn’t try to analize things he doens’t have an idea. Here in Brazil you do one, no… two universities and there is no job. If you find one your boss is going to pay you a shi… You know why? Because there are tons of guys with a University certificate and there are few, really few jobs. Let’s return. How can you beat the traffic owners if you don’t use their procedure? Explain me. Don’t critize what you don’t understand. Please. Live in a place you can live anything inside your car. Sound in the car? Forget it. You can park a car with sound inside. They still it so fast. Blink your eyes. Brazilia politicians. Lula?All over the world people think he is great. He is involved in a lot of crimes. Much worst than you saw some of our politicians in the movie. But he speaks about poverty, food for the poor people. It is so touching!! Big BSs. Live here in Brazil with our conditions and then critize. Don’t do it if you live in wonderland. That what I have to say. A few of it. Think about it.


Recommended Reading