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Elite Squad

Wagner Moura in Elite Squad

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

DESCRIBED by some as a fascist piece of work, José Padilha’s Elite Squad is a hard-hitting but utterly gripping piece of filmmaking that serves as an excellent companion piece to City of God.

Set around Rio de Janeiro’s notorious favelas, the film offers an intimate look at the city’s vast and intricate web of corruption.

It’s 1997 and BOPE (State Police Special Operations Battalion) Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura) is a man facing a crisis: in addition to the pressures of fighting within the war zones of Rio’s favelas, the volatile slums on the edge of the city, he must find and train his own replacement so that he can escape the day-to-day violence and be close to his wife who is about to give birth to their first child.

His likely successor comes down to a choice between two of the force’s newest recruits, childhood friends Neto (Caio Junqueira) and Matias (André Ramiro) – one of whom is quick on the trigger to maintain order and the other who refuses to compromise his ideals. It is up to Nascimento to make the selection whilst ensuring that the city is safe for a forthcoming visit by the Pope.

Co-written by ex-BOPE cop André Batista and City of God‘s Bráulio Mantovani, as well as Padilha, the film makes heavy use of voiceover to explain the intricacies of the deals and counter-deals that exist within the police force.

But while the back-stabbing and betrayals are near-constant and occasionally confusing, they only make for a more shattering denouement.

Padilha, for his part, doesn’t hold back from showing the dubious tactics of the BOPE officers, who frequently contravene human rights, and who often serve as judge, jury and executioner. It’s little wonder that real-life officials became so fidgety and attempted to block the film’s release.

There’s also a thrilling moral ambiguity about the piece that has been misinterpreted by some as a glorification of the extreme tactics used by Captain Nascimento – although closer inspection shows that Padilha is merely letting events unfold and inviting the viewer to judge based on their own principles.

What it does underline, however, is the impossibility of the situation facing the police officers, who are poorly treated and mis-understood themselves, and whose survival often depends on their ability to become more extreme than the people they’re chasing/dealing with.

The final, chilling shot arrives like a full body blow the head to guarantee that you’ll emerge from the experience feeling as battered and bruised as the people on screen and thinking about its implications for some time afterwards. Padilha, it seems, has a very bright future ahead of him.

In Portuguese, with subtitles

Certificate: 18
Running time: 115mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: January 26, 2009