November 15, 2012

Portraying the Brazilian Reality Through Film

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Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the Department of Romance Studies’ Brazilian Studies Colloquium. In this colloquium, Neil Larsen — a professor of comparative literature at UC Davis — spoke about current political developments in Brazil. In doing so, he brought into his discussion José Padilha’s Tropa de Elite, which — along with its sequel — is considered one of the most famous productions in the history of Brazilian cinema. The Tropa de Elite saga is essentially about BOPE — the equivalent to the SWAT in the U.S. — and its role in fighting drug lords and corruption in Rio de Janeiro.At the beginning of the lecture, I could not understand how this film was relevant to Brazil’s current political scene. However, after watching several video clips in Professor Larsen’s lecture, and watching both Tropa de Elite movies later at home, the relationship became clear to me. Roger Ebert — the Chicago Sun-Times’ decorated critic — said it best when he admitted that, “[this] Brazilian thriller [is] so angry and specifically political, [that] it’s hard to believe they got away with making it.”Although the first movie is undeniably political, it is confusing to understand what political message it is actually conveying. To Professor Larsen, this was particularly interesting. According to him, the film sometimes seems to celebrate the ruthlessness and violent nature of the BOPE. For instance, there are scenes in which BOPE officials torture civilians living in the favelas as a means to obtain information about drug lords and other targets. I agree with Professor Larsen; sometimes the film does seem to present the BOPE’s as heroes to be admired. I believe that this is the case because the BOPE functions in the film as the antithesis of the drug world — which has caused innumerable problems and fatalities in Rio de Janeiro. The BOPE is order and the drug world is chaos; the BOPE is loyalty and the drug world is corrupt; the BOPE is good and the drug world is bad; etc.However, by “celebrating” the BOPE’s work, the film can sometimes be labeled as fascist. After the film’s release, director José Padilha was heavily criticized in Brazil for this very reason; many people thought that, through Capitan Nascimento — the saga’s protagonist — he fetishized order and romanticized violence. Padilha denies such accusations, and attributes the criticisms to the fact that Tropa de Elite was “the first Brazilian film to have a cop as a protagonist.” He argues that Tropa de Elite is a Marxist film, but that it is shown through the unconventional lens of a cop.To be fair to Padilha, the truth is that Tropa de Elite does portray Marxist ideals. The issue of class struggle is frequently presented to the viewer. Clear examples are the discussions of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, and how rich people play a key role in financing Brazil’s drug war. For these reasons, it is not surprising that Professor Larsen admitted that while the film seems to glorify BOPE, it is also extremely critical of Brazilian society. The problem with Padilha’s film is that Capitan Nascimento’s adventures seem to obscure the film’s critical value. I believe that this is the case because Tropa de Elite’s main focus is just on the drug war. As a result, it becomes somewhat simplistic.Fortunately, Padilha resolved this issue in the sequel. As he later admitted, “Tropa de Elite 2 has no debate; everyone who thought Tropa de Elite was fascist loves the sequel.” In Tropa de Elite 2 — O Enemigo Agora é Outro the enemy is no longer the drug war — as the title suggests — but the entire establishment and its corruption. The film’s ending is very explicit in conveying this idea. The camera takes us to Brasilia, Brazil’s geographical and political center, zooms on a Brazilian flag and critiques the political status quo as the root of many evils — including favelas and drug wars.

Abdiel Ortiz-Carrasquillo is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. I Respectfully Dissent appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: AJ Ortiz