Opinion, by Samantha Barthelemy
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – This week I went to Cinemark Barra Downtown, twice, to watch director José Padilha’s Tropa de Elite 2 (Elite Squad 2). I was quite late, as over eleven million spectators watched the hit film before me, breaking a 34-year old box office record and making it Brazil’s top movie of all time.
The first screening was overwhelming. I had to return not only because the movie is spectacular, which with all its Hollywood action scenes and brilliantly poignant script it is, but because as a Carioca I am still trying to assimilate Padilha’s message.
“Any similarity with real characters or events is merely coincidental.” Maybe the movie does not depict a meticulously accurate reality, but it portrays an expansion of a brutal and revolting truth. The city is real, the situation is real, the police and the militias are real and the problems are undoubtedly real.
While Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad) pointed to the hypocrisy of the middle class in its consumption of drugs and police brutality, the sequel engages in an even more delicate discussion of politics and the rule of militias set up by rogue policemen.
The stories on the screen can be found in the quotidian of Rio de Janeiro, be it in politicians’ involvement with unlawful activities or the corruption entrenched in the state’s security forces.
It becomes difficult to distinguish fiction from reality. Diogo Fraga’s captivating character is imaged in the story of Marcelo Freixo, a state legislator who ousted, among other criminals, the notorious former chief of police Álvaro Lins. The unimpressive governor Celino is a direct reference to the despicable Anthony Garotinho, Rio’s former governor implicated in corruption scandals, recently convicted for his crimes and now inexplicably returning to politics.
Many Cariocas, gringos and Brazilians can watch the movie and, after recovering from occasional scenes of violence, easily brush it off. Some prefer not to believe that politicians can be responsible for torturing and killing (innocent) people and perpetuating injustice. Some believe it but do not seem to care much. Some may even care but do not know how to respond.
Rodrigo Pimentel, former Captain of Rio’s BOPE (Special Police Operations Battalion) claims people tend not to believe in the “militia phenomenon” or to believe it represents “something positive, like vigilantes in service of the law.” What many fail to realize is that militias can be much worse than drug trafficking gangs.
I hold no pretension of providing lessons of morality, but I believe this movie should lead to more than a queasy feeling or skyrocketing profits. It should cause indignation and serve as a wake up call. Padilha’s main accomplishment is in connecting the dots. We know Rio is plagued by “backwardness” – such as the government threatening the lives of those it is bound to protect – but we often fail to realize how we are implicated in this perverse chain of events.
Padilha’s message is unambiguous, but the film’s ending is perplexing and powerful in forcing you to reflect. After all, as Captain Nascimento, our villain turned role model played by Wagner Moura, asks, “Who finances all of this?” In the new era we claim Rio de Janeiro is embarking, let’s not forget the answer to this question.
A Belgian-Brazilian native of Rio de Janeiro and former United Nations journalist, Samantha Barthelemy is a dual degree Masters of International Affairs student with Columbia University and the Paris Institute of Political Studies, specializing in International Security Policy, Brazilian Studies and Communications. http://samanthabarthelemy.blogspot.com