BY Bert Rebhandl in Profiles | 01 JUN 11
Featured in
Issue 140

Reel Life

Working between documentaries and blockbusters, Brazilian director José Padilha is reviving the legacy of neo-realism

BY Bert Rebhandl in Profiles | 01 JUN 11

A sword, a skull and two machine guns – these are the items that form the emblem of bope, a special police unit that is mostly deployed to fight organized crime and drug trafficking in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. BOPE stands for Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais (Special Police Operations Battalion), but it was the more common name for this unit that was used as the title of a 2007 film by Brazilian director José Padilha: Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad). bope’s emblem is featured prominently in the marketing material of this arresting thriller, indicative of the comic-book style of the entire movie. A common belief is that the Elite Squad is above the law, because the combat it engages in is less involved with policing Brazilian society than with fighting an urban war against what is conceived as an enemy from within. This notion of a ‘state of siege’ is also applicable to Padilha’s film: it’s a police action-thriller that immerses its audience into the ‘war’ by way of a highly controversial immediacy (using quick handheld camera and smooth editing) and intensity (through its use of voice-over).

But Tropa de Elite is an interesting case in point because it plays by the rules of a genre (think: the US television series 24, 2001–10) in which violence is justified as the inevitable, necessary means an ‘elite’ uses to keep an unruly people in check. Padilha’s approach could be described purely in terms of market strategy: it indicates how the cinema of an emerging global player like Brazil could feature on the global market in the future. In order to gain in this market, the director employs a strategy that adapts the sleek idiom of ‘special agency thrillers’, the history of which ranges from the Dirty Harry series (1971–88) to the brilliant Hong Kong trilogy Infernal Affairs (2002–3).

Onibus 174 (Bus 174), 2002, colour photographs. All images courtesy: Zazen Producoes. 

But there is also a political side to Padilha’s strategy: he confronts the right-wing preference for brute force and vigilantism that most of the thrillers in this genre promote with a leftist idea of rupture through social realism and theoretical reflection. In a telling scene in Tropa de Elite, there’s a reading of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) in a law school class that one BOPE officer attends in his free time.

This double strategy of employing the genre convention and simultaneously rupturing it is not so much about having your cake and eating it – it’s more getting the cake and sharing it. Padilha makes a u-turn from the direction taken by most of Brazil’s great filmmakers. He is not trying to confront the audience directly with complexity, as director Glauber Rocha did with his operatic allegories and ‘aesthetics of hunger’ in the 1960s and ’70s, from Barravento (Turning Wind, 1962) to A Idade da Terra (The Age of the Earth, 1980). Padilha is no longer trying to establish a counter-aesthetic, be it bleakly neo-realistic or baroquely excessive, against the simple formulas of mainstream entertainment. Rather, he reaches out to a broader audience – and then attempts to take them somewhere else, within his thrillers, as well as with his other film projects.

Last year, Padilha presented Tropa de Elite 2, the sequel to his 2007 blockbuster. But before and between those two films he did something completely different: he made three documentaries about aspects of Brazil’s social reality. Taken together, these five films establish Padilha’s oeuvre as almost conceptual in its approach to politics and film history. While the two Tropa de Elite films operate in the field of mass-market appeal, his documentaries can all be seen as revisiting crucial moments in Brazilian film history. Ônibus 174 (Bus 174, 2002), the story of a young man who hijacked a bus, relates to Pixote: A Lei do Mais Fraco (Pixote: The Law of the Weakest, 1981), Hector Babenco’s seminal, documentary-like story of a delinquent street kid. Garapa (2009), the bleak portrait of starving families in the northeast, is Padilha’s take on Vidas Secas (Barren Lives, 1963) by Nelson Pereira dos Santos and the whole mythology of the Sertão, as this arid region is called. Even Secrets of the Tribe (2010), Padilha’s fairly straightforward TV documentary on the rivalries among anthropologists who conducted field-work with the Yanomami tribe in the Amazon rainforest, can be related to a milestone of Brazilian Modernism: Mário de Andrade’s 1928 novel Macunaíma. Both the original book and its 1969 film adaptation (by Joaquim Pedro de Andrade) are parables that deconstruct the ‘national’ and anthropological stereotypes found in Western literature about Brazil and its indigenous population.

Tropa de Elite (The Elite Squad), 2007, film stills.

With the opening scene of his debut feature Ônibus 174 – a long helicopter shot of Rio de Janeiro’s extremely varied neighbourhoods – Padilha makes one thing very clear: he is interested in panorama both in the visual as well as the social sense of the word. The case of Sandro do Nascimento – who, on 12 June 2000, hijacked a public bus in Rio and took its passengers hostage – was a live media spectacle. For hours, the drugged-up and volatile young man was filmed ranting and making demands, during which time several police units were preparing for action. They were badly co-ordinated and their squad leaders were constantly in touch with political authorities that were only interested in the media impact of the case. In the end, a bope officer made a fatal mistake: he inadvertently shot a woman who was already out of the bus and just one step away from safety.

The incident had been widely forgotten when Padilha decided to look into it. He screened all of the relevant archival footage shot by television crews, CCTV and passers-by. He then tried to find out who Sandro do Nascimento was: a young man who had lost his mother to a violent crime when he was a little boy, and who had spent most of his life in custody or prison or on the street. Incidentally Nascimento was also present at another crucial event when, on the night of 23 July 1993, a group of off-duty policemen opened fire on street children sleeping under marquees in the area around Rio’s Candelária Church, killing eight of them. Nascimento was among the survivors of what became known as the Candelária massacre. In hindsight it is almost as if he had been spared for ‘his’ moment in the spotlight.

Garapa, 2009, Film and production stills.

Brazilian society in its totality could recognize itself in Ônibus 174: be it as a passenger on the bus, as one of the many institutional or volunteer helpers on Nascimento’s way, or as one of the problem solvers – people who devise social aid programmes such as Fome Zero (No More Hunger) or call for rampant action against the druglords in the favelas. It was as if Pixote had come alive again, the young man from Hector Babenco’s aforementioned classic that became a turning point in Brazilian film history. With Pixote the momentum of the reformist Cinema Novo came to an end, and a different thing began. No longer was the main goal the mediation between pivotal strategies of Western high-Modernism and local tradition to create a ‘tropical multiculturalism’ (Robert Stam), as epitomized in Glauber Rocha’s Antonio das Mortes (Antonio of the Death, 1969), in which the story of a Cangaceiro (a social bandit of Brazil’s northeast) was stylistically framed by elements of the Western, but also millenarian religion and the memories of peasant uprisings in the past. Pixote clearly went for international as well as local recognition, targeting an art-house market that had just unfolded as a new niche for film audiences. In comparison to the films of the Cinema Novo movement, it offered identification instead of alienation, engaging instead of distancing effects – closer to the classical modes of narrative cinema.

Brazilian cinema went through a hiatus that lasted almost two decades, between 1981 (when Pixote was released, which pre-empted what was to come) and 1998, when Walter Salles picked up from Babenco’s legacy with Central do Brasil (Central Station), a moving story about a boy returning to the countryside in the company of a bitter, elderly lady, hoping to find his father. What he does find, in a highly significant and pointed end, is an old idea of Modernism – a housing project designed in a grid pattern and with the modest ambition of technocratic planning – and, for Brazil, a new idea of subjectivity: the Christian evangelical belief that has spread widely in the country.

With Central do Brasil, the film industry in Brazil came back to life, a success story that was further propelled by new political regulations that made investments in films tax deductible. In an ironic result of that policy, Brazilian state-owned oil giant Petrobras has become a prominent sponsor of film, and with the global success of Fernando Meirelles’ favela-epic Cidade de Deus (City of God, 2002) the new paradigm fell into place. This frantic story of the drug trade in a suburb of Rio had it all in one go: live-or-die confrontations next to cocaine highs, gangsta cool next to depressing poverty. All that was lacking was a position: Meirelles was primarily interested in turning everything into an attraction, a shiny surface enshrouding the fact that violence had become the main asset of Brazilian cinema on the world market. Violence and kids, that is, because in Cidade de Deus and its out-branch, the TV series Cidade dos Homens (City of Men, 2002–5), minors were placed at the centre of a scheme that cleverly catered to primordial protection instincts.

Padilha certainly profited from the hype around Cidade de Deus, which even led to the common misunderstanding of Tropa de Elite as simply a follow-up, an attempt to repeat the success of the earlier film. Those who held that opinion should have listened closer to the voice-over by Captain Beto Nascimento (played by Brazilian superstar Wagner Moura), a tormented man who is looking for a replacement for himself. He wants to get out of bope, but at the same time remains its toughest drill sergeant. The complicated identification scheme of Tropa de Elite – an amoral hero who wants to step down and in order to do so has to create an individual as reckless and ruthless as he himself is no longer able to be – becomes slightly clearer in the sequel, where Nascimento gets on the wrong side of power; he’s now a demoted police officer limited to a wire-tap operation that brings him invaluable insights into the ‘micro-relations of power’ (Foucault, as quoted in said law school class) in Brazilian society. Tropa de Elite 2 has a stronger focus on politics, telling a tale about campaigning and buying votes; its plot is driven by the classical logic of individual against conspiracy.

The aerial shot at the beginning of Ônibus 174 is tellingly echoed in Tropa de Elite 2 in an aerial shot of the National Mall in Brasília, the Modernist capital in the country’s heartland, where an ethics commission has to deal with the corruption uncovered by Nascimento. This shot, with all its resonances with similarly iconic images of Washington, D.C.’s National Mall in so many American movies, is a signal of highest importance. It defines Padilha’s project in two ways. Brazilian audiences can see it as an indication that these genre films are in every sense a ‘republican’ affair, an intervention into the political life of the country. And to the world market, Padilha sends out the signal that Brazilian cinema (and, by default, its politics) is now at eye level with American cinema and politics, central ideals of which – freedom of the individual, global commercial democracy, interventionist agency – over so many years have dominated not only the market but also the imagery of how Brazil should develop as a nation.

Working through the genre formulae with the two Tropa de Elite films, Padilha has arrived at a surprising point. It is the point – reached with a completely different type of movie – where neo-realism was in 1945, when states like Italy or Germany came out of their ‘states of siege’ into a new world order yet to be explored and defined. With Garapa, Padilha had already employed the gripping realism required in order to depict something as physical and as (at first glance) invisible as hunger. The Tropa de Elite films also implicitly pay tribute to the legacy of neo-realism – though not in their aesthetics, but their politics. They show a hero – alas, a nation – emerging from a troubled world-view towards clarity by going through all the motions of selling out to the wrong sides. If rumours are true that Padilha is about to direct a remake of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 film Robocop, it might just be the next logical step: the subversion of the American mainstream from the inside. Cinema reflects the reshuffling of the deck of world power relations, and Padilha is one of the most interesting agents in that game.

José Padilha’s Ônibus 174 and Tropa de Elite are available on DVD. A theatrical release of Tropa de Elite 2 outside of Brazil has yet to be confirmed.

Bert Rebhandl is a journalist, writer and translator who lives in Berlin. He co-founded and co-edits Cargo magazine.