The dangerous favelas of Rio De Janeiro are proving to be a rich source of stories for both fact and fiction filmmakers. Cidade De Deus (City Of God) explored their deadly streets back in 2002, while documentary Manda Bala (Send A Bullet) drew parallels between corruption in the upper echelons of Brazillian politics and the everyday violence at street level. Later this year Cidade Dos Hommes (City Of Men) will once again explore tensions and friendship in these drug-ridden shanty towns, which are also the basis for this exploration of police corruption and divided loyalties that won the Golden Bear at 2008's Berlin Film Festival.

It's 1997, and Rio is preparing for a papal visit. Since the police force is rotten to the core, the job of keeping any sort of order in the drug-infested favelas falls to the elite BOPE squad. In a world where the cops are as corrupt as the criminals, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish right from wrong. Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura) is the stressed-out man near the top of the chain. As his wife gets ready to bear his child, he is trying to choose a different heir - the new recruit who will ultimately replace him.

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As he is fighting to get out, recruits Neto (Caio Junqueira) and Matias (André Ramiro) are struggling to get in. These childhood friends, of course, are staunchly loyal to one another while being as different as cats and clouds. Neto is hot-headed if full of "heart", while Matias may use his "brains" a little too much - being far too idealistic for his own good.

Director José Padilha is a documentarian of some note, having previously explored a hijacking that became a media sensation in the award-winning Bus 174. It is somewhat surprising, then, that his first venture into drama should come across as such a stylised and frenetic piece that feels utterly amped up on blood lust. Subtle shades of friendship are lost in a melee of violence, which quickly crescendos and then maintains a one-note intensity for the duration of the film, punctuated only by an ill-advised narratorial voice that serves to keep the viewer at arm's length.

Perhaps the 'too many cooks' theory has been applied to the script, since it was initially written by former BOPE captain Rodrigo Pimentel before being "polished" by City Of God screenwriter Bráulio Mantovani, a process which - according to the press notes - resulted in the narrative being "completely redefined" at the editing stage so that the story is told from Nascimento's point of view.

The trouble is that the action never quite gels as it should. One minute we're watching Neto and Matias get the better of a corrupt cop, the next we're seeing Matias have his loyalty to fellow law students tested - they have no idea he is a policeman, while viewers have very little clue as to why a cop should have to be 'moonlighting' in college. Then we see Neto in the mechanics department of the police force - again its not clear whether this, too, is some sort of obligatory additional wage-earner. Next thing you know, both of them have been carted off to a heavy duty training camp where they are physically and mentally abused to see if they have the mettle to make it in BOPE. All the while, of course, their actions - Neto is ripping off those dodgy policemen, remember? And Matias is ignoring his pals' dope smoking - begin to threaten their futures.

The timeline adds to the confusion, one minute we're in a favela shootout, the next it's training camp time. Just as you begin to ask, "What?" the more important question seems to be, "When?" Meanwhile, on rambles Nascimiento's voiceover explaining everything you do understand to the point of absurdity and shining no light on the things which you don't. Also, what happens to the poor old Pope is a mystery, since all mention of him disappears in the early reels.

It is the lead actors that become the enterprise's saving grace. Their performances are so intense that they demand attention and they give something to cling on to within the confusion. If you like your cinema hard boiled, this may well be for you but don't expect the emotional nuance of City Of God.

Reviewed on: 19 May 2008
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A special squad officer in the violent Brazilian slums tries to find a replacement. Read our with José Padilha.
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Director: José Padilha

Writer: Rodrigo Pimentel, Bráulio Mantovani, José Padilha

Starring: Wagner Moura, Caio Junqueira, André Ramiro, Milhem Cortaz, Luiz Gonzaga de Almeida, Fernanda de Freitas, Bruno Delia, Marcelo Escorel, André Felipe, Thelmo Fernandes, Emerson Gomes

Year: 2007

Runtime: 118 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Brazil


EIFF 2008
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