throwback thursday: 30 years ago today

elite squad (josé padilha, 2007)

This is the latest film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 6 is called "South American Cinema Week":

In an effort to showcase films from South America, I have chosen three countries with rich and interesting film histories to represent the best of what the continent has to offer. I've boiled it down to these three to curate the selection, yet still leave it open for some fantastic film options.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Brazil, Chile, or Colombia.

It wasn't easy to predict how much I'd like Elite Squad. The primary script writer was Bráulio Mantovani, who got an Oscar nomination for the screenplay for the great City of God. The film was a big winner at several festivals. It was very popular in Brazil, enough so that Padilha and Mantovani put together a sequel, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, which became one of the greatest box office hits in Brazilian history.

But you know how I count on critics. And the Metacritic score for Elite Squad was 33 ("Generally unfavorable reviews"). (Manohla Dargis of the New York Times called it "a relentlessly ugly, unpleasant, often incoherent assault on the senses" ... that "wants to have its grinding violence and sanctimony too".) So I didn't know what to expect.

I'm glad to report that while Dargis is not inaccurate, I'm tempted to comment, "You say that as if it's a bad thing". It's hard to look away from the screen, and yes, often that just means you want to see what outrage comes next. Padilha effectively convinces us to accept the point of view of the cops. This is true in particular for the narrator, Nascimento, whose voice overs provide an ongoing commentary on what we see. Nascimento sees evil in the gangs, but he also sees what corruption does to the cops, himself included. He is the source for much of the relentless ugliness.

It isn't easy to figure out where Padilha and Mantovani stand on the events in the movie. The gangs are bad, the cops fight them by any means necessary, and thus we are glad for the cops who guard against utter chaos. But the cops are bad, as well, society is fucked in any case, and to the extent the cops are successful, Elite Squad plays like a primer for fascism.

Ultimately, while I could see the connections between Elite Squad and City of God, the comparison that came strongly to my mind was with Shawn Ryan's American TV series The Shield. The basics are the same: gangs ruining the city, bad-ass cops in the Strike Team the only barrier between crime and average citizens, practically everyone is corrupt. But, even though it takes seven seasons, Ryan makes sure that the head of the Strike Team, Vic Mackey, gets his comeuppance. Nascimento, on the other hand, has gotten a promotion by the time of the sequel.

I realize now that my review reflects the comments from Dargis: I'm often incoherent.


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