Eye For Film >> Movies >> Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (2011) Film Review
It's a little after midnight and I'm leaving an Internet cafe at the junction of Prado Junior and Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana. “Hang on a minute,” the Net cafe manager bids me. He looks outside. A late-night world shielded from me by thick double-glazing. “Yeah, it must be okay,” he says, “The buses are running again, so I guess the shooting has stopped.” I make my way gingerly back to my apartment. Past dubious drinking companions, their backs pressed against the wall, beer in hand, and frivolous smirks lighting up their faces. No way was a simple gun battle going to spoil their evening’s revelry! From the safety of my 13th floor apartment, I watch the streets for a while, high tech armaments barking deadly colours through the night, like an obscene light show, on the nearby hill. Earlier, stray bullets had wandered from the high-up slums into the town below. The Net cafe manager and other residents take such things in their stride.
Gun battles erupt in Rio de Janeiro from time to time as the three drug cartels fight over territory. A clean-up operation was the subject of the first Elite Squad movie, a fictional account that was too close to fact for comfort. Years after my brush with live ammo, and four years after that movie, comes a major update. The special police force, BOPE or ‘elite squad’ is still riddled with corruption. Drugs (long seen as an ‘American’ problem anyway, as the US provides the main demand) are no longer quite as profitable. But extortion, by police and politicians, is running wild.
Generically, Elite Squad II is a good-cop / bad-cop movie. But what marks it out is painstaking realism and accuracy in relation to actual events, with script contributions, as in the first movie, by a former BOPE captain. It struck such a chord in Brazil last year that it quickly became the biggest selling movie of all time.
But it is not the ‘story that no-one dares to say’ that makes Elite Squad II so powerful. Nor the 80 real cops drafted in as extras. Nor even the hair-raising battles, the bloody prison riot, nor the consistently fine acting. It is the way the action reveals a division of opinion over what to do about Rio slum-violence. There are intellectuals, human rights groups, ‘reformists’ (as well as a lot of international pressure groups) who press for clemency, education, and the reform of criminals. Then there are many non- slum-dwelling citizens, from intellectuals to cafe owners, who just want any of the hoodlums dead at any cost. And at the bottom line is votes. Votes, votes, votes. The public will not support any soft-line politician. Letting two gangs kill each other during a prison riot seems temptingly politically expedient. Corrupt BOPE officers, creaming off extortion money from every type of business in the slums, can guarantee votes. This is Brazil. A country that fights to enshrine a modern, accountable political system – but in the face of pressures it can barely control. BOPE, designed to eradicate corruption, has become corruption’s main source. And Lt. Colonel Nascimento, who created the monster, has been promoted to a ‘safe’ desk job. There, he realises that his superiors right up the political ladder are on the gravy train.
The dichotomy between peaceniks and blood-bathers is represented by (the now more mature) Nascimento and his trained officers on one hand, and Diogo Fraga, a left wing Congressman on the other. As Nascimento puts his own life in danger to uphold integrity within BOPE, rabble-rousers urge more bloodshed. Nascimento’s son turns against him, his wife leaves him to marry Fraga. The differences in approach are thrashed out not just with guns and armour-plated vans. They are thrashed out in the more emotional battlefield of a family torn apart by their beliefs. And a problem to which there is no easy answer.
The first Elite Squad movie became so influential that it is frequently cited by scholars and authorities whenever violence breaks out in Rio. Elite Squad II seems likely to follow suit. But will Western audiences find it so interesting when they could instead be watching a (far more fictional) cop drama such as Scorsese’s The Departed? Subtitled movies tend to appeal to an art-house crowd – and, of those, the ones with little or no interest in a country that is barely mentioned on the Western news (even if Brazil is the size of the USA) may not feel inclined to immerse themselves in two hours of tightly woven plot full of blood, guts and heartache. For what? To better understand a system that seems to have little or no relevance to life in the ‘West.’ And this is a shame.Reviewed on: 21 Jun 2011