On October 5, 2007, Brazil’s biggest blockbuster movie was officially released in theaters. In addition to its grandeur, widespread acclaim and popularity, beginning months before its release, have established the film as a truly unique phenomenon. Tropa de Elite (or Elite Squad) has sparked widespread debate throughout Brazil and has remained in the media spotlight where fame and controversy have been fanned by praise and discussion of every issue raised by the film.
The film’s protagonist is a troubled Captain in Rio de Janeiro’s Special Operations Police Battalion (commonly known as the BOPE) who is trying to find and train a replacement for himself as the stress of his job and personal life has become increasingly complicated.
Tropa de Elite is a violent and shocking film where dramatic Hollywood flare has been inserted into the realistic and revealing film style of Brazilian director José Padilha, whose other works include the devastating 2002 documentary Ônibus 174.
Tropa de Elite illustrates the ongoing battle between Rio de Janeiro’s police forces and the heavily armed drug traffickers that dominate and control the city’s ubiquitous favelas (urban slums). It depicts the difficult reality of the BOPE, and the Battalion’s work to combat drugs and urban terrorism.
The film maintains its revelatory character by not taking a specific posture on the important issues that are brought to light. However, there is a clear message.
The message that Tropa de Elite has conveyed to its millions of viewers is that what is depicted in the film is the reality of Brazilian society. It is a dark and unhopeful reality that all must, and do, live with. No one denies that Brazil must face this reality and Tropa de Elite does not make light of the situation – nevertheless there is a solution that exists.
The answer is clear in the film. The BOPE, an uncorrupt and effective arm of the police forces, can do its job well and infiltrate the favelas occupied by drug-lords. It is an unpleasant reality but it is reality.
Tropa de Elite might not directly say if the BOPE’s work is good or bad, moral or amoral, but by making it clear that this is the reality, which must be endured, the message is striking. The film, along with this message, has received nearly cross the board acclaim.
It does a good job of bringing to light some of the most pressing and real issues for many Brazilians. It is undoubtedly an important cinematic work due to unmatched fame and popularity; however, the film holds even more significance because of the variety of opinions that have been voiced in response.
The various debates surrounding the film center on the following issues: the role of extreme police violence, combating urban crime, how to approach both drug-traffickers and middle class recreational drug users, and the extensive pirating and early illegal release of the film.
Almost everyone has chimed in, media and individuals alike, to express passionate opinions on these controversial issues. The discussion surrounding the film is heated, and with good reason, and although there is widespread debate, there seem to be very few new ideas on the table.
Essentially there is no attempt to challenge the reality reflected in the film; neither from within the film itself nor from the voices throughout the public. Within this reality, the solution to social ills, such as drug trafficking and urban violence, lies in the BOPE’s war-like approach. There is no discussion of a solution that moves beyond engaging in combat and eliminating the enemy.
Daily images of violence and warfare on television and newspapers maintain and echo this narrow discussion. Clearly there is little questioning of the reality illustrated in Tropa de Elite. There seems to be no other existence possible for Brazil.
The fact that there is little expression of hope and optimism surrounding these issues is yet another distressing reality for Brazilians, and possibly one that is cause for more worry than the reality depicted in the film itself.
What is not talked about, namely an alternative to the reality illustrated in Tropa de Elite, provides important insight. Sometimes what is not discussed in a society can be equally revealing as what is discussed. Although there are many important issues on the discussion table there seems to be one that is not present.
Police violence, torture, and the perception of poverty as a social enemy are important concerns that have received their share of attention. What is missing from the discussion, however, is the link between these issues and the most recent period of military rule that Brazil experienced during the sixties, seventies, and eighties.
Due to the concerns expressed about the behavior and practices of Brazil’s police forces, Tropa de Elite seems to be the perfect outlet for bringing the significance of the military dictatorship into the spotlight. Nonetheless, as the dictatorship is usually absent from any debate in Brazilian society, this film makes no exception.
Tropa de Elite attempts the important task of portraying the widespread practice of torture and the existing war between police forces and sectors of Brazilian society. These are clear areas where the influence and enduring legacy of the dictatorship is located. However, there is no connection made between these issues and Brazil’s recent history, neither in the film nor in the surrounding debate.
Does the fact that many Brazilians consider the protagonist in Tropa de Elite a hero, one that uses extreme violence and torture, imply a general validation of the 21 year brutal dictatorship that Brazil experienced until 1985?
This is doubtful due to the complete absence of any discussion surrounding the military dictatorship in relation to any current issue in Brazil. It is more likely that this is clear evidence that there is a lack of understanding of the historical and current significance of the dictatorship.
The film, which according to polls, is loved by over 90% of those who have seen it, has become a part of the everyday vocabulary for many in Brazil. Everyone is talking about it, but an in-depth discussion and understanding of the film seems to be lacking.
Tropa de Elite has the potential to bring about important criticism and provoke a rethinking of the most important questions for Brazilian society. Maybe all of the flashy media attention has detracted from this potential but when the uproar subsides will there be room for discussion, or will these issues continue to be considered without creative, productive, and new ideas?