[14 November 2011]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“I kicked a lot of junkies’ asses, I killed a lot of scumbags. Nothing personal. Society trained me for that.” Lt. Colonel Nascimento (Wagner Moura) is headed into yet another battle at the beginning of Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (Tropa de Elite: O Inimigo Agora É Outro). This time, he’s trying to subdue a prison riot, which he does brutally and also from a distance. That is, when one of the prisoners who has taken hostages declares, “I don’t negotiate with cops, the hostages are going to die,” Nascimento sends in a squad of military police to summarily execute the hostage-takers. Amid the blood and smoke, he’s hailed as a national hero.
If you’ve seen Elite Squad, director José Padilha’s 2007 film, you know that Nascimento, then a captain in Rio de Janeiro’s Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais (the Special Police Operations Battalion, or BOPE), is not only tough, but also thoughtful. He means to fight back against the seeming overwhelming force of the city’s criminal network, the drug dealers, the gun-runners, the gangsters, and the neighborhood mini-lords who maintain their grips by killing people, their enemies and also any and all random citizens who resist. And he worries about turning into a mirror image of the villains.
In the second film, Nascimento faces similar questions, only more of them. Again, he’s in a position to see more than could have been seen by Sandro do Nascimento, the drug-addled street kid at the center of Bus 174 ( Ônibus 174), Padilha and Felipe Lacerda’s brilliant 2002 documentary. When Sandro took a city bus full passengers hostage—and was killed by police—the filmmakers used TV and street surveillance footage, in addition to interviews with cops, reporters, social workers, prisoners, and homeless people, in order to interrogate the causal intersections of poverty, violence, and official corruptions, as these affect children like Sandro, abandoned by social and political mechanisms, consigned to be “invisible.”
In The Enemy Within, Sandro’s namesake faces all of this again, though he comes at it from another perspective, that of the dedicated, moral-minded, and frequently anguished policeman. The film—which has already made more than $63 million in Brazil—is defter and slicker than Elite Squad. (Even the bloody shootouts are more efficient: you understand the consequences without feeling pounded.) It also expands the focus of its critique: it’s not just the cops and robbers who are corrupt and utterly barbarous, but also politicians and media representatives. The “system,” Nascimento discovers, is everywhere.
The devastating and apparently intractable extent of this system becomes clear to Nascimento, whose narration here is similar to what it was in Elite Squad, partly looking back and partly holding out, so that you discover details as he does (though you’ll likely guess who’s involved in what’s going wrong before he seems to catch on). His tone is somber and even sad, as his relationship with his son Rafa (Pedro Van-Held) is strained, and his ex-wife Rosane (Maria Ribeiro) finds a new life with Diogo Fraga (Irandhir Santos). It happens that his efforts to negotiate with the prisoners back in the film’s first scene were thwarted by the assault Nascimento ordered. Fraga goes on to be elected to the legislature, running against police excesses.
This complex relationship between Nascimento and Fraga represents the many turns taken by their mutual—and sometimes conflicting—efforts to fight the “system.” Their seeming opposition is staged obviously: one man is prone to violence and visible anger, the other more intellectual, less macho. Each recognizes different instances of abject greed and cruelty and, eventually, each turns to the other for help in sorting out the morass.
Their primary adversaries here are the increasingly powerful paramilitary groups, with one foot in the police force (even inside Nascimento’s beloved BOPE) and another in moneymaking street activities… and still another inside government buildings (where they support some elected officials, like Governor Gelino [Julio Adrião], though not others, like Fraga). Incarnated most visibly by the large and scary Major Rocha (Sandro Rocha), these men can’t trust each other or anyone else: they run illegal business in the favelas, maintaining their influence by killing anyone who even thinks about resisting or exposing them, including cops and reporters. The film underscores the irony of this system, its structure as an open secret: everyone knows the menace exists and how it works (at least in general terms), and no one has the wherewithal to defy it effectively.
Determined to fight back, Nascimento is at once heroic in conventional senses and profoundly limited in what he can do. The interlocking pieces of the “system” are daunting. It “feeds on politics,” Nascimento asserts, “And politicians only care about the media.” When the militia (inevitably) oversteps or its plainly criminal associations are exposed, “the system would have to work out a solution.” As The Enemy Within insists, that solution can’t be good.