God Can Forgive Him
“Starsky and Hutch,” announces Fernando Bosch, behind the wheel of his unmarked cop’s car. “I’m serious, I used to watch Starsky and Hutch all the time. Before I watched Starsky and Hutch, I wanted to be an accountant.”
It’s a small moment, but striking. Code 33 cuts from this scene in Bosch’s car on a dark nighttime street to a bright daylight exterior shot, the Miami Police Department, and then inside, to the office where he works. The camera pauses on the door that reads “Sexual Battery Child Abuse Unit.” It’s the summer of 2003, and the film follows Bosch and his partner, Elio “Chills” Tamayo, as they pursue a serial rapist in Little Havana.
Neither the detectives nor the filmmakers can know, in these introductory scenes, that the case will come to involve seven victims aged 11 to 79, that it will attract national media attention, or that it will go on until September. For now, they’re busy explaining what it means to work in this office, and how they feel about pursuing criminals who attack children. “You see kids who are beaten, who go into a hospital,” says Bosh, “Five years old, a little seven-year-old girl didn’t deserve it.” Not that anyone “deserves it,” he says, but still, “That never sinks in as to why somebody would do something like that… It just gets to you.” The camera pans across his kitchen to his wife, her face reflecting his own upset.
Screening as part of this month’s Rumur Films Retrospective, Code 33 is at once straight-ahead and nuanced. The project was initially conceived as a portrait of forensic artist Samantha Steinberg, who appears several times with interviewees in her office, gently helping them to describe what they saw: “I need you to tell me everything you can remember about how he looked,” she says more than once. The film takes a turn when the serial rapist case breaks open, but Steinberg remains central to the storytelling, at once a passionate advocate for the girls she calls “my victims,” as well as dedicated professional, concerned with what goes wrong during the daily work of the Miami-Dade County Police Department. The film itself doesn’t investigate what goes wrong so much as it observes reactions to increasingly bad news.
When an 11-year-old girl is raped in her home, Steinberg underscores the difficulty of the case right away: the girl tells her that the man knew her mother was coming home, Steinberg recounts. “He knew his time was limited,” but yet “he spent, from what I understand, more than two hours with her.” Steinberg doesn’t need to say more; her face indicates the horror she feels. With a camera riding in his car, Bosch explains that though he and Tamayo are “working numerous cases at once, this right now has taken priority, because of the age of the girl and how it happened.” The unit is soon working with multiple offices in the department in order to track the suspect—who is eventually caught, then escaped, then recaptured in 2005. That the case takes several months to solve, even as the cops have a DNA sample and even as they have multiple descriptions, troubles all involved.
Those who are involved include not only the unit, but also the commanders who have to face journalists on an increasingly regular basis, and the journalists too. Stories circulate quickly, some based on fear and rumor. “One of the things that struck me about the Shenandoah rape case,” notes the Miami Herald‘s Jim Defede, “is that he’s preying upon a community, a community that is more likely to be fearful of the police, given their own legal status and so he’s able to hide within this community.” Indeed, once the cops take up the tactic of taking DNA samples from “Hispanic” men on the street, the “community” is caught between a desire to cooperate and a concern they’re being profiled.
Soon CNN and MSNBC reporters are on the beat in Little Havana, and the department faces complaints that it has botched early steps of the investigation. Department Chief Frank Fernandez holds a series of press conferences, where he’s peppered with questions from reporters and worried parents. Fernandez tries to keep to the talking points, repeating what little information has already been released. “This guy is an opportunist,” he says. “He’s going out there and picking on whoever he comes across.”
This doesn’t make anyone feel better. Some months later, the department allows America’s Most Wanted to participate. When the show brings in its own forensic artist, who re-interviews the victims and comes up with another drawing that is, of course, massively circulated by way of the popular show, the department faces still more complications. As media scrutiny increase, as reporters “take a closer look” at all aspects of the case, Defede observes, “It’s gonna make the dynamic between the politicians, the press, and the police extremely tense.”
Code 33 follows this changing dynamic, as Bosch, Tamayo, and Steinberg, along with Defede, voice their simultaneous dedication to the job and their concerns with the process. When at last the culprit is found, the film again keeps its distance, watching high fives and exclamations of relief in the department office from across the room. It also affords a disturbing look at the rapist, Reynaldo E. Rapalo, caught and waiting to be moved, standing literally by a doorway as he begins to cry. He asks to speak with the chief, to “say something to him.” The chief listens, standing between the translator and Rapaldo, standing in the doorway that serves as a kind of liminal site and moment. “We can’t forgive him,” the chief sums up. “God can forgive him.”