We Actually Watch Elite de Tropa

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None of the pyrotechnic Globollywood ultraviolence in the film — which was actually extremely modest by Die Hard or 007 standards — is nearly as emotionally devastating as that climactic moment in which the camera just focuses wordlessly on the killer’s naked face and refuses to turn away.

[For a dissenting review, see Rio: “The Trooper Elite Is an Antisocial Crime!”]

After we took our life in ourhands, trying and failing to buy a copy on the street in the Santa Ifigênia — “Crack City” — neighborhood of São Paulo the other day, my wife Neuza asked me to download the pirated version of Elite da Tropa — “The Trooper Elite,” I tend to want to translate it, though “Elite Squad” seems to be the English title they have chosen — so we could see it for ourselves.

I speak fluent Bittorrent, and the film currently has 500 seeders and 200 leeches on the link I found to it.

Done and done. Badda bing. Badda boom. I am now no better, or worse, than your standard Sino-Paraguayan retail outlet at the camelôdromo. But I do plan to buy a ticket to see the film in theaters, if only just to watch the audience reaction.

Neuza’s comment: “Holy cow, the entire cast of Tropical Paradise” — the latest blockbuster Globo primetime soap — “is in this thing!”

(There are few options for making it as an actor in Brazil that do not pass through the Globo soap factory. Some of the things I have seen the amazing Lázaro “Madame Satã” Ramos have to do to pay his dues in the soaps were — I swear to God — literally Amos ‘n’ Andy embarrassing.)

Which explains a lot.

All the critics and pundits and eggheads here in Brazil seem to be questioning whether the screenplay, from an intensely personal fictionalized autobiography by former BOPE officers, is not self-serving, tending to glorify and celebrate the extreme ultraviolence, torture and inhuman vigilantism depicted here.

After watching the whole thing, from beginning to end, I no longer think that is entirely true. And a director’s cut could rectify a lot of that.

The film sets out to be — and at certain points manages to be — a sort of Brazilian Full Metal Jacket.

The problem is that at certain points it does not have the courage to stick with Kubrick’s deadpan irony, his creepy minimalism, his Brechtian estrangement gambits, his unrelenting, pitiless gaze.

At the end of Full Metal Jacket, you recall, the soldiers who have fought the Battle of Hue disappear into the fog of war singing the theme song from Disney’s The Mickey Mouse Club.

He’s our favorite Mouseketeer,
we know you will agree


In the slang of the period, “Mickey Mouse” had become an adjective denoting everything that is phony, preposterous, nonsensical, contrived, useless, plastic fantastic, treacly, bogus, deceptive, illusory, childish. Nonsensical to a degree that is insulting to the intelligence of the person on whom the nonsense is to be foisted.

A polite synonym for incompetent, self-deluded gabbling bullshit. Such was the verdict of the American fighting man on the massive clusterfsck of Vietnam, in Kubrick’s masterful portrait of the conflict.

It still has that connotation among my generation as well: “Was it all it was cracked up to be? Naw, man, it was totally Mickey Mouse.”

This film, however, begins and ends — in the pirated version we saw — with a slick, pumped-up, head-banging version of Bope vai te pegar — “Man in Black, what is your mission? Go into the favelas and leave corpses on the ground!” — that seems calculated to top the charts.

Or serve as the theme song to a cross-marketed first-person shooter game.

On which piece of carioca law-enforcement Netroots folklore, see also

If the film were stripped of its infotainment trappings, however, to focus more exclusively on the dark landscapes of emotional reality explored by its ensemble of actors, it would lose very little and possibly gain quite a bit.

Yes, the hypnotic, ever-present, hysterically moralistic voiceover of Captain Nascimento is a compulsive litany of many of the all-too-familiar rationalizations you read in a “sex and death” tabloid press that apologizes with Pavlovian gusto for police ultraviolence — and has for decades.

But these are just his words. They are the words of a man on the edge who is trying desperately to talk himself down. They contradict themselves, they perserverate, they are complex and incoherent and mutable and repulsive and anguished and self-pitying and sociopathic and tender and enraged.

They serve to convey all the screaming neuroses of a man, abandoned by his wife and child and popping anti-anxiety pills, who finds himself flat on his back on the couch. (A police psychiatrist collaborated on the book from which the film was made).

Nascimento’s are words whose total inadequacy to the emotional truth of the protagonists whose story is told here — of trying to hold on to your humanity in the face of the insane reality depicted here — is the whole dramatic point of the picture, I think.

The transformation of Matias, meanwhile — the studious, bespectacled young black trooper with the double life whom Nascimento (the name means “birth,” and is symbolically significant) chooses to replace him in command of the “A team “– is less emotionally convincing, I thought, because the role, as filmed, at least, is less well-written.

Matias often seems like much more of a sociological construct than a lived experience.

It’s the story of Matias that carries most of the film’s sometimes wearisome, finger-pointing didacticism, for that reason.

Still, his cold-blooded killing of the evil dono do morro, Baiano — deliberately obliterating his face with a 12-gauge shotgun so he cannot be mourned with an open coffin — can in many ways be seen as a rather precise dramatic parallel to the killing of the Vietnamese sniper by Private Joker. Possibly even a deliberate allusion to it.

Director: Interview?

(The physical resemblance of Matias to Col. Ângelo, current commandant of the Rio PM, is striking. Did anyone else notice that?)

But it’s the schizogenic overdubbed narration of Nascimento that carries most of the film’s emotional truth, that conveys its deep, even if deeply fucked-up, humanity.

What this film manages to make you realize, at its best — no, not realize; feel — is that all the grotesque inhumanity you see being perpetrated is, after all, being perpetrated by humans.

Humans just like you.

Which is exactly what works of dramatic art are supposed to get you to realize.

Or so Aristotle said.

In fact, one of the characters I felt the most sympathy for was the bode expiatorio in the scenes that most reminded me of the opening “boot camp” episode of Full Metal Jacket — the corrupt PM, Fábio, whom we seeing being forced to appeal to the jogo do bicho [“numbers”] mafia to get the parts he needs just to make his squad car run.

And whose hide BOPE saves from a plot to assassinate him, in the bang-bang-bang at the Babilônia baile funk that opens the film.

He is the recruit that Nascimento focuses his rage on during the FMJ-style boot-camp sequence.

What makes Capt. Fábio dramatically complex, however, is that we are to understand that he is there in part out of deep gratitude for what BOPE did for him.

He is there, it seemed to me, out of a sincere desire to change. A muddle-headed, garbled, stillborn attempt by a bottom-feeder in Hell to climb out of the shithole he dwells in.

Which is why I kind of thought it was a mistake simply to show Nascimento breaking him and then throwing the character away. Played as a sort of moralistic rah-rah applause line.

Not without showing the consequences of that careless act of brutality.

The script works to set the character up for a much more complex and meaningful fate — we learn in detail at the outset of the film about the thousand constant petty frustrations that make being a Rio cop a season in freaking hell — then just tosses him aside like Bruce Willis running out of bullets in one gun and throwing it aside to pick up another.

Capt. Fábio is emotionally complex: both thuggishly repugnant and oddly appealing in his being so utterly de saco cheio with the world he finds himself in. He seeks redemption, but does not find it.

There is real pathos to that. Explore it.

Yeah, so, I really do think maybe Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket maybe the greatest war and antiwar movie ever made — is the best point of reference to compare this movie to.

Like Harold Bloom says, “the meaning of a movie is always another movie.”

If I were going to try to pull these knee-jerk notes together and write an actual, coherent review.

Because Wagner Moura, in the role of Capt. Nascimento — who first got our attention in the great Cidade Baixa, alongside Lázaro Ramos, in fact — reminds me a lot of Matthew Modine in that film at certain points.

That scene at the end, where Private Joker has to put the young Viet Cong sniper out her misery as she begs for death?

That long, long, close, close take of his face as he points the pistol downwards and tries to find it in him to pull the trigger?

None of the pyrotechnic ultraviolence in the film — which was actually extremely modest by Die Hard or 007 standards — is nearly as emotionally devastating as that climactic moment in which the camera just focuses wordlessly on the killer’s naked face and refuses to turn away.

There is the same sort of devastating and repulsive and pitiless and courageous emotional honesty about this film, at its best.

Stripped of its Globo-soap didacticism and its first-person shooter commercial tie-ins.

(It’s not too late for a director’s cut that just throws all that Globollywood nonsense out!

How about this: No pop music in the soundtrack at all.

Use the real, grungy, toothless, shantytown funk carioca tunes about the BOPE legend that are out there on the Internet — sou feia mais tô na moda! — interspersed with Villa Lobos for the classical guitar. Choro Enigmâtico. Get the Assad Bros. to do it.)

Elite de Tropa is a Brazilian Full Metal Jacket.

The character of the demented Neto, for example …

That’s the angle I would be taking, if I were Roger Ebert.

And I’m sticking to it.

This is all a total kneejerk reaction, mind you, written while slightly drunk.

Anyway, I hereby promise to make up for the act of Bittorrent piracy by buying a ticket to see Tropa de Elite again on the big screen.

But only if it’s a director’s cut that cuts out the Mickey Mouse crap and leaves in more of the emotional truth that this world-class ensemble of actors and writers dug down so deep to find.

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Watching Rede Globo’s Fantástico (Brazil) — Second Life is not just a game, it’s an actual alternative reality! — questioning the verisimilitude of infotainment is like seeing Timothy Leary or Baba Ram Dass invited to chair the ethics committee of the American Psychological Association.


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