Who is José Padilha: clear-eyed chronicler of society’s forgotten souls, or misanthropic peddler of pummeling law-and-order fantasies? It’s a question implicit in the critical reactions to Elite Squad (2007), the Brazilian director’s fictional follow-up to his 2002 documentary debut, Bus 174. (He also made the television documentary Brazil’s Forgotten Cowboys in 2003, which is currently not available within the United States.) Both take as their subject the drugs-and-gangs plagued slums of Rio de Janeiro, specifically examining how a poisonous atmosphere of street-level brutality, crushing poverty, bureaucratic incompetence, and governmental inertia pushes individuals to acts of cruel violence. The difference lies in who the subjects are. Bus 174 sought to flesh out the emotional and social traumas that drove the perpetrator of the infamous 2000 bus hijacking in downtown Rio. Elite Squad, on the other hand, focuses on members of the Batalhão de Operações Policias Especiais (BOPE), a select division of the Rio de Janeiro police force known for its take-no-prisoners approach to urban crime.
The latter film’s queasy fascination with BOPE’s more vicious policing methods—information obtained via near suffocation with a plastic bag; point-blank executions as retribution for fallen comrades—led some reviewers to turn up their noses, especially in comparison to Padilha’s earlier work. Read Matt Connolly’s entry in Reverse Shot’s American All-Stars symposium.
Bus 174 plays Friday, October 22 at New York’s IFC Center.