Rio de Janeiro by far the most famous city in South America. But it is not only rainforests, football matches and post card sceneries. The city is home to 7,8 million people and includes some of the biggest financial divisions in the world. Whereas the few rich live in seaside palaces, the hills are filled with favelas, where millions live in squalor. Not surprisingly, the crime rates are also through the roof. Even the police are afraid to go into the most notorious favelas, because they are seething with heavily armed criminals with itchy trigger fingers.
This is not just a sad proof of the wealth distributing in the modern world, it is also a source of a few great films, which I'd like to take the opportunity to talk about a little more.
City of God (Cidade de Deus, 2002)
Director: Fernando Meirelles, Kátia Lund
One of Rio's most notorious favelas is the Cidade de Deus, City of God. The impoverished area was taken over by criminals already in the 1960's and 70's. Fernando Meirelles's film is based on real events that happened in the favela during that time. The erstwhile writer Paulo Lins is represented in the story by the character of Buscapé, who wants to become a professional photographer.
The story begins in the 60's as Buscapé is still a child. His brother Marreco is a member of a trio of underaged criminals who loot business owners and give part of the profits to the poor people of favelas. They are idolized by the adolescent Dadinho, who eventually gains their trust and joins them in a gig at the motel. He is set to serve as a lookout and given a gun to shoot if the police arrive. But Dadinho is untrustworthy with a weapon. He shoots a lot of innocent people and get the police coming down on the trail of the trio. In the aftermath he also murders Goose.
Years pass, and Dadinho grows as a notorious drug dealer known as Zé Pequieno, or Li'l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora). He's taken over almost all of the drug businesses in the City of God, and his iron-handed rule has brought out a shallow peace. He is still a murderous psychopath, though. The only thing keeping Zé cool is his best friend Bené (Phellipe Haagensen). But when Bené is accidentally shot with a bullett meant for Zé, the peace is broken out. The mad Zé is driven completely off the edge, and becomes even more dangerous and adamant to crush his enemies. Caught in the middle of the impending gang war is the now adult Buscapé (Alexandre Rodriguez), who desperately wants to leave the slums to become a professional photographer.
The film serves as a believable representation of the inflammable conditions in the slums. It's burned up, scorching cinematography undermines both the nostalgia, but also the barren, wasteland-like conditions that the main characters have to live in. The actors feature many actual slum-inhabitants, which might explain how amateurs are able to pull off their roles so intensively and believably. A lot of thanks has to also go to Meirelles, and his co-director Kátia Lund, who manage to get so much out of their big cast.
The film opens with chickens being made ready to cook. In a way the children in favelas are also raised up to die young in a dog-eat-dog world. You either eat or be eaten, and escape from the slums to a better life is nigh impossible. Buscapé succeeds, because he manages to exploit death and misery just as much with his photographs than others with their guns and drug businesses. The film chronicles years' worth of crime. The scope is at the same time massive and microscopic, as these people and conditions are so easily forgotten by us westerners. Things look different from the micro-level, but at the core there are still some essential human values. City of God is an incredible, unforgettable piece of work, and one of my very favorite films made in the last ten years.
The Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite, 2007)
Director: José Padilha
Captain Roberto Nascimento (Wagener Moura) is a tough, uncompromising leader of the squad. Yet he's getting weary of trying to fight a war that's unwinnable. His wife is waiting for their first child, and Nascimento decides to find a follower to lead BOPE's operations. He strikes his eyes on a pair of uncorrupt freshmen cops after they do a daring strike to a huge favela party hosted by gangsters. André Matias (André Ramiro) is an idealistic bookworm, bent on upholding the law and reading up on criminal justice at the university. His childhood friend Neto Gouveia (Caio Junqueira) on the other hand knows no fear, and is willing to go to brutal lengths to fight crime. He is the one leading the pair to strike into the hearts of criminal operations in favelas. Nascimento follows the two work their way through the state military police and subsequentally hand-picks them to go through BOPE's training. The training is meant to narrow only the best of the best and the uncorruptable to be able to work in BOPE. But at the same time, Nascimento himself falls deeper and deeper into a circle of violence, and can't maintain a healthy private life any more.
The Elite Squad basically feels like a war movie, where boys have to become men to be able to play a part on a brutal, inhuman game. Director José Padilha poses questions about how much must we lose of our humanity to accomplish what we feel is for the greater good. Altough Nascimento's Elite Squad is uncorrupt and able to execute difficult operations at the heart of slums, they do work a lot on a morally grey area. A lot of people have to die for them to get what they want, and percieved criminals get shot just by being at the wrong place at the wrong time. At the heart of the movie is a terrific boot camp sequence. The boot camp is so tough and cruel, that it should prepare would-be BOPErs into following orders unquestioning, to sacrifice oneself for the sake of the team and to be able to withhold abusive situations without blowing up or succumbing into corruption. Of course, the real BOPErs may have difficulties in several of the areas even after their camp experience.
|"This is like the gun I had in 'Nam."|
Altough Nascimento works as our narrator, it is hard to like the man. Popping pills, beating his pregnant wife and taking his aggressions and stress out on his trainees, he is seen almost as a demon, trying to lure idealistic young cops into his way of thinking. We are set to symphatize more with Matias, arguing with his even more idealistic class-mates about the nature of justice, and going through a major arc. Neto is a sort of darker reflection of him, with his almost sadistic glee he gets out of killing.
All in all, the first Elite Squad has been rightfully critizised of right-wing glorification of a police force that has a licence to kill. But it should not be seen as a film that does it unquestioning. Throughout the film there are multiple debates about the nature of right and wrong. In a totally crime-infected areas such as the favelas, such questionings should be important. Even if one doesn't agree on the stance the film poses, it at least works as opening conversation. Plus, its action scenes are totally kick-ass.
The Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (Tropa de Elite 2: O Inimigo Agora É Outro, 2010)
Director: José Padilha
The Elite Squad's sequel cuts down on the action, but increases the hopeless image of a society trapped in a corner with no way out. As a reward it became the biggest hit in Brazil cinema history. Like all good sequels do, it expands the scope and looks at the same subjects from new perspectives. The film delves deeper into the politics in Rio de Janeiro. The outlook is cynical, and the society is shown to be so corrupt that it's almost unfixable. The film also features a bigger character arc for Nascimento, coming to question his own place in the society, as well as his old methods.
Nascimento has divorced from his wife, who has subsequently married a Human Rights Aid member Diego Frada (Irandhir Santos). The two men see differently with just about everything, so there's certainly a rivalry going on, and not the least on the bringing up of Nascimento's son Rafael (Pedro Van-Held). After BOPE turns a prison riot (where Frada has also been present) into a bloodshed, Frada calls for punishments to Nascimento and his right-hand man, André Matias (Ramiro). Matias faces bigger hardships, as he's taken back to work in the Military Police. Due to Nascimento's popularity with the public, he's given an office in the Secretariat of Security. From there on, Nascimento begins to look into the businesses his department has with the State governor, the State police, and paramilitary milicias.
|"What's this? A favela for ants?!"|
Journalists rush headstrong into tough situations they are totally unprepared to handle. Humanitary aid finds it's way into the wallets of fat cats fighting to gain power for themselves. Thus also politics gains more power-hungry, corrupt sleazebags than people who actually are willing to make a change. Television shows are sheer right-wing propaganda, shouting for more money for the police. The police are corrupt to the point of shooting their own if they ask the wrong kind of questions. And even BOPE's old shooting criminals-gig doesn't work when the real enemy's within the system, and able to raise three more criminals in the place of the fallen.
As it is, the film follows a large number of characters, each representing a layer of the society and/or a level of corruption. Altough all of their approaches to corruption are cynically viewed as unfunctioning, the characters aren't all clearly set to be only right or wrong. Some of their ideas don't work in practice but some do. Most of the film's characters are three-dimensional, with also ulterior motives regardless of their political alignment. The main focus is in Nascimento, who while still maintaining some of his moral complexity, also comes into his own terms as a character here. Nascimento starts to feel old and weary by the end of the film, and loses some of his will to fight wrongs. Surprisingly, he has a strong end speech about the human values, and he also sees some error on his own ways. He sees that weeding out upper-level corruption would have helped his cause a lot more than shooting poor people in slums, but by now it is already too late.
|"Shh! They're playing Radar Love!"|
The film reminded me strongly of The Godfather II. So good is this sequel, widening up the scope of its predecessor and moving from mythical movie legends to cold realism. Organized crime has slowly infiltrated all aspects of the society, so it's getting harder and harder to battle against it. While Nascimento as a character is as morally conflicting as Michael Corleone, he's actually gradually turning from II's Michael into the Michael from the beginning of I. So there's still a glimmer of hope.