Blame It on Rio
Matt Connolly on José Padilha’s Bus 174 and Elite Squad
Who is José Padilha: clear-eyed chronicler of society’s forgotten souls, or misanthropic peddler of pummeling law-and-order fantasies? It’s a question implicit in the critical reactions to Elite Squad (2007), the Brazilian director’s fictional follow-up to his 2002 documentary debut, Bus 174. (He also made the television documentary Brazil’s Forgotten Cowboys in 2003, which is currently not available within the United States.) Both take as their subject the drugs-and-gangs plagued slums of Rio de Janeiro, specifically examining how a poisonous atmosphere of street-level brutality, crushing poverty, bureaucratic incompetence, and governmental inertia pushes individuals to acts of cruel violence. The difference lies in who the subjects are. Bus 174 sought to flesh out the emotional and social traumas that drove the perpetrator of the infamous 2000 bus hijacking in downtown Rio. Elite Squad, on the other hand, focuses on members of the Batalhão de Operações Policias Especiais (BOPE), a select division of the Rio de Janeiro police force known for its take-no-prisoners approach to urban crime.
The latter film’s queasy fascination with BOPE’s more vicious policing methods—information obtained via near suffocation with a plastic bag; point-blank executions as retribution for fallen comrades—led some reviewers to turn up their noses, especially in comparison to Padilha’s earlier work. Reviewing Elite Squad upon its U.S. release in September 2008, Manohla Dargis witheringly observed that the film “wants to have its grinding violence and sanctimony too,” and characterized Padilha as “belly-flopping into fiction after soaring high in Bus 174.” And David Fear noted in a more ambivalent Time Out New York notice that Bus 174 “turned a concise true-crime story into a complex indictment of class and complicity. Elite Squad, however, can’t decide whether it wants to pull the lid back on what urban decay has wrought or simply open up a can of whup ass.”
But Elite Squad was far from universally panned. It won the Golden Bear at the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival, and later found a number of supporters whose praise seemed as much in reaction to the initial wave of negative press as it was in support of the film itself. In particular, those who liked Elite Squad seemed intent on framing the film’s violence not as arty exploitation, but as a “true” depiction of societal ills and their inevitable consequences, unvarnished by equivocating niceties. Padilha’s use of “militaristic rhetoric” as a way of examining the modern police system “may not be the sort of cinematic argumentation that we Sunday-broadsheet liberals normally favor,” noted Jonathan Romney in the Independent, “but it works.” Jim Ridley in the Village Voice similarly gave Padilha the benefit of the doubt, seeing the film’s framing of BOPE as “the outgrowth of an existing evil—a no-win situation that mocks liberal ideals and warps conservative pragmatism into domestic terrorism.” Such “liberal ideals,” of course, form the backbone of Bus 174, if by that phrase we mean here a generalized hesitation regarding the use of police force and a belief that criminality largely has its roots in economic destitution and social marginalization.
For viewers not from the country in question, such polarizations—liberal/conservative; progressive/reactionary—can provide a jumping-off point for whether the film they are watching presents an “authentic” vision of their subject: which is to say, a vision that corresponds to their own preconceived notions of truthful documentation. The same people who bristle at Elite Squad’s fixation on (and fictional re-creation of) BOPE’s down-and-dirty tactics and reality-ain’t-pretty justifications perhaps unsurprisingly see more value in Bus 174’s empathetic ideas of how poverty and racism can warp the individual into a gun-waving bus hijacker. And while fans of Elite Squad don’t necessarily decry these qualities of Bus 174 (Romney doesn’t note the film at all in his review, while Ridley mentions it in passing), their praise of Elite Squad implies that the film’s complicated sympathy for BOPE’s methods cuts closer to the dark heart of the matter. That relatively few films from Brazil (or any South American country) make their way to the U.S. every year only strengthens this propensity for slotting films into predetermined ideological categories, as we have a relatively limited spectrum from which we can more specifically pinpoint the stances of individual works.
That Bus 174 and Elite Squad both sprang from the same mind, of course, immediately muddies this frame of reference, calling into question the unity and stability of any political project Padilha might be exploring—and therefore can be classified—within his cinema. Indeed, his brief oeuvre provides a fruitful opportunity to move beyond simplistic, this-or-that directorial groupings and consider the messier idea that he might remain of (at least) two minds about the range of reasons for, and responses to, the present state of urban life in Rio de Janeiro. Without indulging in armchair psychology, we can nevertheless see in Padilha’s films a certain working through of opinions regarding Rio’s law and disorder, acknowledging the flux of current events and the knotty nexus of thoughts and emotions they produce within those who live through them. Evidence that Padilha finds himself not simply trading one ideological pole for another can be seen in two of his upcoming releases: Garapa, the critically praised documentary chronicling three impoverished Brazilian families; and Elite Squad 2, made with much of the same creative team as the first film.
In noting this, we not only allow Padilha the intellectual wiggle room and space for contradiction we readily afford many American directors (Tarantino’s fetishization/critique of filmic representations of violence; Sofia Coppola’s examination of—or perhaps wallowing in—her characters’ cocoon of privileged ennui). Acknowledging the inconsistencies within Padilha’s films also lets us consider the multitude of factors that go into the filmmaking process for a director who must consider the reactions of both native and international audiences. Bus 174’s relative level of sociological depth, for instance, can be traced as much back to common sense as good intentions. Thousands of Brazilians watched the Bus 174 incident on television and would go into Padilha’s film already knowing its tragic ending. Therefore, an examination of one of the more poorly documented aspects of the hijacking—the background of the hostage-taker himself, Sandro do Nascimento—not only provides an opportunity for understanding, but offers a unique take on a well-known story. The jittery handheld feel and go-for-the-close-up gore on display in Elite Squad, meanwhile, bears more than a passing resemblance to Fernando Meirelles’ City of God (2002), that slum-epic art-house hit that helped revitalize U.S. interest in South American cinema early last decade. Though Elite Squad’s release came some five years after City of God, the presence of both the Weinstein Company as a co-producer and City of God writer Bráulio Mantovani as a co-adapter point to the increased financial expectations on Padilha’s work, and perhaps led to an influence of Meirelles’ aesthetic on his own. (Ironically, Bus 174 far outgrossed Elite Squad in the States, although the latter was a huge hit in Brazil, both in theaters and through the purchase of illegal copies.)
Moving past these either-or simplifications still leaves us with the films themselves, with their sharp divergences in tone, message, and quality. If these differences cannot adequately be explained by rigid ideological beliefs, perhaps they can be traced to the artistic perspective that Padilha brings to each project: the underlying outlook about what can be achieved cinematically through the telling of any given tale. At the risk of oversimplification, Bus 174 displays a spirit of exploration, of looking beyond the obvious to get at something unexpected. In contrast, Elite Squad settles for a grim, grimy surface view of things “as they are.” These approaches can be tied to political/ideological persuasion, but such a move produces a multitude of counterexamples. See The Wire for further proof that a searching tone such as that in Bus 174 can as easily be applied to bureaucracy-mired cops as it can underprivileged criminals. And just because a film focuses on the downtrodden doesn’t mean it cannot lapse into a belligerent quasi-romanticization of poverty and crime (but enough about City of God). The real issue at stake here is whether we as viewers find greater value—greater “authenticity”—in a vision soaked in cynicism, or one that’s despairing but probing, daring to delve ever further into the abyss in the hope of finding a deeper, if not happier, truth. This is Bus 174’s triumph, and this is Elite Squad’s failure.
Set immediately before Pope John Paul II’s 1997 visit to Rio, Elite Squad follows Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura), a hard-headed BOPE leader whose dangerous, high-octane assignments have begun to fray his nerves. Pushed by his pregnant wife to retire, he signs on for a final mission—clearing up the slums where the Pope is visiting during his trip—and hopes to find his replacement by the job’s end. He evaluates two candidates: André (André Ramiro), a sober, fair-minded officer torn between BOPE and law school; and Neto (Caio Junqueira), André’s hot-headed childhood friend who quickly becomes disillusioned with the Rio police when he is randomly assigned to the squad’s corrupt auto repair unit. One could overlook the schematics of the script, with its reliance on such cop-movie clichés as the elder officer’s “one last job” and the fretting wife back home. What makes Elite Squad such a sour experience is its insistence that the corruption infecting Rio is not only systemic and intractable but also so hopeless that BOPE’s violence represents the only “real” way of getting things done.
Padilha drives this home via Nascimento’s hectoring voiceover, a laundry list of grievances that comes to dominate the film’s mood and message. Some have tried to recast this choice as a method of audience distanciation, a Travis Bickle–esque commentary whose content we are supposed to critically analyze given its embittered, pill-popping source. Yet because everyone in Elite Squad essentially conforms to Nascimento’s jaundiced description, such ambivalence rarely registers. What remains is scene after scene of caricatures playing out their expected roles, with Nascimento’s blasting them with seething, fish-in-a-barrel relish: upper-class university students discussing Foucault while smoking the weed that funds Rio crime (yeah, screw college kids!); fat-and-happy police captains collecting their graft (yeah, screw law enforcement!); well-intentioned social workers obliviously aiding dangerous gang leaders (yeah, screw social awareness!). Elite Squad technically has enough research under its belt to claim the mantle of exposé—the screenplay, co-adapted by Padilha, Mantovani, and Rodrigo Pimentel, is based on the semi-fictional book Elite da Tropa by sociologist Luiz Eduardo Soares and BOPE officers André Batista and Pimentel—but its spirit is anti-inquisitive, battering us into submission to not so much rationalize its characters’ actions as to justify its own sneering, it-is-what-it-is misanthropy.
Such an attitude couldn’t be further from what drives Bus 174 (codirected with Felipe Lacerda). Indeed, Padilha has said in interviews that the desire to investigate what wasn’t shown during the hostage incident’s wall-to-wall media coverage drove the project’s inception. Culling through more than 24 hours of video footage from media outlets, traffic cameras, and other sources, Padilha painstakingly reassembles the incident moment-by-moment. This is impressive in and of itself, but Bus 174 reveals from the start that the point is not reconstruction, but excavation. We open on a magisterial, four-minute aerial shot of Rio, looking splendid under the hot Brazilian sun, though some of the buildings appear dilapidated even from this great height. As Sacha Amback and João Nabuco’s portentous score surges in the background, however, we begin to hear the voices of homeless children and teenagers. Tight with anger or dulled by exhaustion, they tell us about life on the street: the abusive and alcohol-ravaged households that put them there, and the dejection it has instilled within them. Padilha does not cut to the accompanying images of these lost boys and girls as they testify to their hard lives, but keeps floating above the city whose alleyways they call home and whose citizens ignore and reject them. We may gaze upon sun-kissed beaches and rolling verdant mountainside, but those disembodied cries of pain and frustration haunt them. The disjuncture between pictorial beauty and sociological reality not only underlines our own willful ignorance (but it looks so pretty!); it sets up the dichotomous relationships between image and truth that will go on to define our understanding of the Bus 174 hijacking and how it resonated within Brazilian society.
This idea comes out in Bus 174’s very construction, which oscillates between the hijacking tapes; post-facto interviews with hostages and police officers, as well as friends and family members of hijacker Sandro do Nascimento; and original footage shot on the streets and in the jails of Rio. We are introduced to Sandro through the Bus 174 tapes and, aside from photographs and some stray archival footage, it remains our only direct encounter with him. One can understand why he was demonized in the press and by the public. Putting aside his crimes, Sandro often appears manic to the point of derangement. He is swaddled in rags and scarves and pacing about like a caged animal, and his face appears clearest when he sticks it out the window, yelling threats in a strangely rhythmic cadence as he presses his gun against the temple of various female hostages. His eyes appear both crazed and mildly glazed over, and a missing front tooth gives his occasional grin an added hint of madness. (Several witnesses and hostages remarked that Sandro, a cocaine addict for many years, appeared extremely high during the hijacking.)
But while displaying much of what the Brazilian public saw of Sandro, Padilha quickly begins crafting the parallel, unseen narrative of what brought Sandro to this disquieting breaking point. He watched his single mother get stabbed to death by thieves when he was ten years old, prompting him to take to the streets. Once there, he fell into a destructive and, as Padilha takes pains to note, all too common cycle of theft, drug use, and incarceration. As a teenager, he was also a survivor of what became known as the Candelária massacre, in which Rio police descended upon a popular resting place for homeless children and teenagers in front of the eponymous cathedral and opened fire on those present. Eight youths between the ages of 11 and 20 were killed. Witnesses later said that the murders were prompted by events earlier in the day, when some of the same teenagers threw rocks at a police car. Amidst his more rambling comparisons between the Bus 174 situation and the action movies that undoubtedly helped to inspire the hijacking, Sandro repeatedly reminds the police of Candelária, claiming his actions the result of their earlier, largely unpunished crimes. The intertwining of the hijacking and Sandro’s tragic life story reveals the layers of impacted frustrations, rage, and dashed hopes that lead him to this rash act: one whose reasoning seemed to come from a need for visibility in a society that had shoved him into the shadows. But Padilha refuses to paint Sandro’s life as a straightforward freefall into the abyss. He conducts interviews with Sandro’s maternal aunt Julieta and straight-shooting social worker Yvonne Bezerra, who both attest to Sandro’s perennial desire for a second chance at education and employment. And in one of the film’s most heartrending passages, he speaks with Dona Elza, an elderly woman who unofficially adopted Sandro as a teenager. Fighting back tears, she recalls Sandro’s wonderment when he is given his own room, tentatively asking her if he has permission to shut the door.
Yet for all its humanizing effects, Bus 174 never claims to understand fully why Sandro did what he did, nor does it make wide-ranging assertions about his life and character besides underlining the no-win social position in which he struggled to escape from. And this feels right, given that the closest Padilha ever gets to Sandro comes either second-hand or through the aforementioned videos of the event itself. Sandro did not survive the hijacking, suffocated by the police in the back of a car in what the officers claim was a botched attempt at sedation. The natural distance between camera and subject seen in the hijacking footage feels as much a metaphorical divide as a physical reality. In this sense, Bus 174 is something of ghost story, with Padilha pursuing a phantom that could once reveal his secrets, had anyone bothered to listen.
If the presence of media undeniably helped to paint Sandro as the villain of this real-life narrative, it also afforded him a kind of protection. Police officers repeatedly note that nearby snipers had dozens of opportunities to take down Sandro, but higher-ups in the government balked at the notion of killing him on camera for all the country to see. (Ironic, given the bloodthirsty cries of the Rio crowds once Sandro finally stepped off the bus in a futile attempt to negotiate his freedom.) He was safe so long as he maintained the camera’s interest. Whether he’s conscious of it or not, his increasingly outlandish behavior and demands—at one point requesting a grenade and two rifles—simultaneously ensured the continuation of his survival and solidified his public persona as a lunatic, worthy of punishment. The bus’s wide length and horizontal windows became a kind of stage upon which Sandro performed, aware that the curtain could fall at any moment. Here too, Padilha understands the divide between public perception and private truth, and his nuanced depiction of Sandro’s life allows us to slowly recognize the desperation and terror beneath every swing of his pistol and raspy-voiced boast. In perhaps the film’s most extraordinary sequence, Sandro appears to have finally made good on his threat and shoots one of the hostages while she lies on the bus floor. It’s a gut-churning moment, yet we almost immediately realize that the same woman has been the subject of a post-hijacking interview throughout. As she and other hostages explain, the execution was a ruse that Sandro insisted upon and they agreed to. So, too, were the blood-curdling screams and tear-streaked begging of other hostages after the fake execution occurred: no doubt mixed with actual fear, but done for the sake of the audience as a means of leveraging power and commanding authority.
Though Sandro is the core of Bus 174, Padilha’s gaze also falls on the Rio police. His portrayal is far from flattering, yet unlike Elite Squad’s facile vision of a barrel full of rotten apples, Padilha here uncovers the roots of the police’s errors in judgment largely as a result of poor training and low societal expectations. The film views officers such as hostage negotiator Captain Batista as well-meaning and skilled, but hopelessly hamstrung by a broken system, a fact Bus 174 treats as unacceptable yet tragically understandable. Indeed, it’s striking how painfully aware everyone interviewed seems to be with regards to Rio’s crumbling law and order infrastructure. One of the film’s most hair-raising moments comes when Padilha receives a tour through “the vault,” the nickname for Rio’s 26th precinct jail. A nightmarish pit of a room, the jail contains no natural light, and frequently holds 30 prisoners in cells built for ten. The shadows cast by the unforgiving fluorescent bulbs evoke some ghastly German expressionist nightmare. The guard guiding Padilha, meanwhile, can only describe these horrific conditions with matter-of-fact sadness. Still, the images that stay with you are those of the children and teenagers that Padilha chronicles with such empathy and lack of condescension: Claudete Beltrana reminiscing about life on the street, smiling as she recalls splitting a combo meal of fries and an ice cream sundae with fellow street kids; or three boys, no more than ten years old, juggling on one another’s shoulders before a pack of stopped cars, hoping for donations that rarely come. And finally, the lonely casket that holds Sandro do Nascimento at film’s end, with only a teary-eyed Dona Elza and a gaggle of photographers present to mark a life so little acknowledged until its fraught, violent end.
To think that the same director who captured these moments would later produce the contemptuous—and frequently contemptible—images that pervade Elite Squad boggles the mind. Inevitably, we return to that opening query of directorial identity and intent, still searching for an answer that may never come. Yet to attempt such a definitive statement on his work would be to deny the messiness inherent in Padilha’s view of contemporary Brazilian society, which evades easy classification. Rather, it encompasses the plethora of ideals, prejudices, hopes and fears of those living within it. That the contradictions inherent in his subject matter seem to have contaminated his vision as much as they’ve enlightened it might be the surest sign of Padilha’s deep cinematic and social engagement, even as the ultimate nature of that engagement remains a beguiling question mark.