Director Jose Padilha concludes his trilogy exploring the influence of politicians, police and the media on Brazilian society with Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, which, unsurprisingly, follows on from 2007’s The Elite Squad but began, more unusually, with the critically acclaimed documentary Bus 174 in 2002. Padilha, recently announced as the director of the long mooted Robocop reboot, has been described as an ‘equal opportunities agitator’, is clearly not afraid to be the agent provocateur in his unflinching portrayals of life in modern day Rio De Janeiro. Conservatives and liberals alike have both praised and decried Padilha’s coruscating expose of police corruption, Machiavellian politicians, ruthless criminal gangs and a media system geared to irresponsibly inflaming social anxiety in the name of higher sales and viewing figures. If you think the mean streets of Baltimore, as pictured in HBO’s much feted The Wire,are dangerous, then wait until you see the sheer social chaos, entrenched cynicism and life-is-cheap attitude on display here.
Elite Squad: The Enemy Within drops the viewer straight into the action via an assassination attempt on a troublesome police officer, carried out by other officers, and a narratively catalytic prison riot that leads to a massacre perpetrated by BOPE (Special Police Operations Battalion), the much feared organization that plays a central role in Padilha’s trilogy. Lt Colonel Nascimento (Wagner Mauro), the subject of the assassination attempt and one of a number of emotionally scarred, embattled characters who return from The Elite Squad, finds himself promoted rather than demoted after the calamitous events he oversaw in the prison, and acts as the complex and increasingly disillusioned heart of a film that draws clear comparisons between power, the fear that engenders and moral bankruptcy running from the drug dealing gangs on the streets of the Favellas, through the organization charged with maintaining law and order, via those that report on events all the way up to those that stalk the corridors of power. Padilha’s angry, no-holds barred film, Brazil’s entry in the Best Foreign Film category for the 2012 Academy Awards, is told in one, near two hour, flashback narrated by Nascimento, that speeds along at an often dizzying rate of knots. The general populace appear to be little more than expendable cannon fodder, political pawns to be manipulated or vulnerable targets ripe for economic exploitation. As Nascimento is sucked ever more into danger as he tries to battle ‘the system’ of corruption that surrounds him the scale of his self-appointed mission threatens to overwhelm him. A series of memorably executed set pieces, devastating incidents and escalating violence (driven by the testosterone fueled, patriarchal culture seen to dominate the environment) carries events towards a climax that is less of a conclusion and more of a prophetic, cyclical statement.
Blistering, brutal and often brilliant, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within may not do much for Rio’s tourist industry but it’s a gripping, labyrinthine tale with its roots very much in the real world. The fact that tales of endemic corruption, police brutality and chronic social conditions are rife throughout the world makes this powerful film all the more relevant.