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Once upon a time there was a film called Z (1969), directed by a certain Costa-Gavras. The film is so old now, that if you look at the IMDB for a brief summary, you’ll find out that the Greek-set Z is about “the overthrow of the democratic government in Czechoslovakia.” Funny enough, the quotation reveals the rapid passing of time: nobody would have made the mistake in 1969. Z was a huge worldwide success, and for many years it stood as a crucial example of a kind of cinema that could be both political and popular at the same time. As such, it deeply impressed a precocious Brazilian named José Padilha, who was born in 1967. Today, Padilha still claims Costa-Gavrasis “his hero.” But not everybody was completely happy with Z, besides the members of the Greek right wing who were indicted in the plot for the killing of a leftist politician. Some French critics called it fiction de gauche, a scornful category for those films that copied the most banal Hollywood productions, with good and bad guys clearly established, but with the cavalry on the side of the correct (leftist) cause. Cahiers du Cinéma argued that such a film, so lacking ambiguity, and with such straightforward (but clumsy) filmmaking as Costa-Gavras’, was neither film nor politics. Its reactionary form deprived the film of any meaningful content: instead of defending democracy in Greece, they said, a film like that could serve any purpose. If you want a Marxist film, Jean-Marie Straub used to say, you should look at John Ford and not at Costa-Gavras, Pontecorvo, Rosi, nor any other of the fiction de gauche filmmakers of the time, who sought to please the audience in the same cheap way that the audience is gratified by typical Hollywood films.
Not many people understood what the Cahiers critics were saying about la fiction de gauche. But the ultimate proof that they were right comes 40 years later, and is called Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite). Young Padilha grew up and became a filmmaker, following in the footsteps of “his hero.” His debut as a director was Bus 174 (2002), a documentary based on the TV coverage of a police incident in the streets of Rio. A deranged homeless man hijacked a bus, and when the police tried to catch him, he shot one of his hostages. Though flatly shot, the film was well researched, and foreign audiences benefited from the suspense created by their ignorance of the eventual outcome. Padilha established himself as a documentariste de gauche, somebody who tries to portray dramatic social issues in his country using the forms of his time. Bus 174 coincided with the massive success of City of God (2002), the Scarface of the favelas, an empty film featuring spectacular murders, oppressive sound, and actors that looked like TV stars. Street violence proved to be a big asset for Brazilian cinema, both at home and abroad, as festivals and co-producers usually look for Hollywood films made elsewhere, but with a distinctive, exotic look.
Then there was a book, Elite Squad, based on the memories of former BOPE members, a special police force trained to fight the Brazilian drug wars. Padilha saw an opportunity, bought the rights, and hired Bráulio Mantovani, writer of City of God, to do the adaptation. (He also attracted the interest of the Weinstein brothers, whose financial backing helped complete the film.) Elite Squad was bound to succeed, but things went far beyond expectations. A pirated DVD hit the streets of Brazil prior to the theatrical release and sold 10 million copies. Then, the film attracted 3 million viewers at the box office. Held together by an oppressive voiceover, Elite Squad follows the thoughts and whereabouts of Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura), a BOPE officer. In doing so, the film explicitly shows how the members of BOPE train, kill, and torture. “We couldn’t make a documentary,” said Padilha, so instead he’s made something like a snuff film with a message, one where the director never tries to separate himself from the BOPE policemen. His camera strictly adheres to their point of view, including contempt for intellectuals, and the claim that these paramilitary troops and their methods are the true servers of Brazilian justice.
To keep up the momentum, Elite Squad went to Berlin and won the Golden Bear from a jury chaired by none other than Costa-Gavras, who recognized in Padilha a member of his own tribe. Some critics (including Variety’s and Le Monde’s) were rather shocked, calling Elite Squad “fascist.” A mad Padilha accused them of being stupid and not knowing what fascism is about. The critics replied that, for one thing, the film endorses torture and murder by an elite troop that wears black and uses a skull as a symbol, exactly like the SS. And that the film also endorses the scenes showing that BOPE is right and intellectuals are wrong, not to mention that pot smoking by the middle class is shown to be the cause of the murder of children in the slums. For some reason, they said, every fascist in Brazil (and there are quite a few) is cheering for the film; meanwhile, the citizens are clamouring for more BOPE and less talk.
But Padilha doesn’t want to be taken for a fascist. He sees himself as a progressive person who’s showing the ugly truth. After all, it is Captain Nascimento’s voice in the film, not his. But the film addresses the viewer in a rather arrogant way. Padilha doesn’t take any kind of distance from Nascimento: there’s no irony, no criticism of any sort. The Captain is shown in a sketchy but supposedly “humanistic” way, with nervous breakdowns and marriage problems. He’s a bit crazy, but his heart is in the right place, contrary to those soft, Foucault-reading college kids who collaborate with the criminals and couldn’t care less about poverty. Padilha pretends that Elite Squad is a brave film about a tough situation shot with no hypocrisy, but the characters are one-dimensional and some dialogue seems to be taken from a recruitment ad. The narration shows a TV influence, with things very simply put for the clean and responsible citizen to understand, but also with a handheld camera that conveys a conventional sense of urgency. It’s a film designed to please and conform to the zeitgeist, because the audience that once cheered against the military in Z is today more concerned about drug-trafficking than torture or civil rights, except for a few intellectuals, like those who, in an earlier time, didn’t endorse Z’s simplistic approach to politics and aesthetics.
In the end, fiction de gauche has become fiction de droite by remaining identical, by approaching cinema with a naive and demagogic eye, and by trying to use the pop forms of its time to send a message about public issues. By trying to make the adrenaline flow at any cost and ignoring formal concerns, by not asking questions, by not acknowledging that some care should be taken about how to address torture and how to deal with violence and humiliation, Padilha ends up—maybe to his surprise—supported by the fascists, while Costa-Gavras had the leftists on his side instead. But the song remains the same. It’s called entertainment.