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.

Samantha Barthelemy, Carioca in New York specializing in International Security Policy, Brazilian Studies and Communications.

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.


  1. ‘Any similarity with real characters or events is merely coincidental’ is simply a legal disclaimer, to prevent the film producers from being sued. (And it’s very tongue in cheek – as all the characters and events are totally real).

    You are correct, the militias are far worse than the trafficantes – they don’t even live in or come from the favelas which they control. At least the trafficantes grew up there and are part of the community. Worse still, the militias are police – who are supposed to be trusted protectors of the law.

    Ironic how most people who see this film, see it as nothing more than an action film and don’t understand the very real-life contexts… in other words – nothing changes… and people will go to the beach and drink a beer (and throw their empty can on the sand) and not contemplate politics…

  2. Samantha, everyone knows “who finances all of this”– it’s the “recreational” drug users in Brazil, the US, Europe, elsewhere. As long as the wealthy “recreational” drug users continue to “recreate” the drug suppliers will continue to “supply”.
    There is no solution, save legalization of drug use, or even (Gasp!) state control of sales of addictive drugs. In the US, states (or counties) control the sale of alcohol and cigarettes, which are much more addictive and destructive than marijuana or even cocaine. The War On Drugs was lost years ago, Prohibition proved repression ineffective, so…let the state sell drugs, get cash which can be used to “cure” addicts, or at least diminish the HUGE cost to society of drug addiction.

  3. Both Michael and Diego, thank you for your comments.

    Michael, I think it’s even worse than just “blaming” the recreational drug users.
    We, as a society, are all to blame. We, as a society, allow these politicians to remain in power. We, as a society, turn a blind eye to the government’s neglect or worse, oppression, of an entire sector of our society. We, who have the power to influence change, sit comfortably in our “safe zone”.

    What the movie portrays so well is the fact that the problems are not just about drug trade, it is about EVERYTHING happening inside the slums (from the installment of internet cables to the distributions of food parcels). Legalization would surely – or potentially? – help, but as Padilha points out so well, our entire system is messed up. The rogue police and firemen that set up the city’s dozens of militias aren’t the only part of the problem. Worse are those who, democratically elected (or simply appointed), use their power to steal, abuse, coerce, kill… And WE are the ones allowing it to continue this way… We have the power to throw them out.

    Diego, I feel the same way. Most people I know absolutely loved the movie because it was so “exciting”, which it truly is (no wonder over eleven million watched it). But as I tried to portray, Padilha’s film is a lot more than a blockbuster, and I sincerely hope some of my carioca (or gringo) friends take the time to watch it again, and contemplate it in the way it was meant to be…

  4. Michael – for sure, the ‘war on drugs’ internationally, has been lost years ago… it’s a totally lost cause. But i don’t think it’s fair to blame recreational users – what’s wrong with having the occasional toke, or dropping the occasional pill..? Let’s keep things in perspective. As you pointed out, cigarettes are far more harmful and addictive, yet, they are legal and taxed.

    Looking at the bigger picture – people in Rio sell drugs because they can earn at the very minimum, R$2000 per month. Meanwhile, the minimum wage is stagnant at R$500 per month. While the senators and deputies just authorized a pay raise for themselves by 126% – to R$26000 per month.

    As Samantha says, the entire system is screwed up… and that’s putting it gently…


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