You may not have heard of the most popular, and perhaps most violent, Brazilian film of all time. Tropa de Elite, which came out last year in Brazil and is now in limited release in the United States, follows Captain Nascimento of BOPE, an elite military police battalion, as he prepares Rio de Janeiro for an upcoming visit from the pope. This involves the gruesome torture and murder of countless Rio residents, suspected drug dealers, and crooked cops. The film has been widely criticized for its depiction of brutality against civilians and its seeming advocacy of vigilante violence.
In an article for In These Times, Homes Wilson examines the film and the political undertones of its stunning popularity. The problem with Tropa, Wilson believes, is that the consequences of its gratuitous violence are ambiguous. Whether it is interpreted as destructively immoral, as director José Padilha intended, or as a necessary evil in Brazil’s war on drugs completely depends on the viewer’s point of reference. “If the filmmakers had purposely set out to weave Rio violence into a fascist propaganda piece,” Wilson writes, “it’s impossible to imagine them doing a better job.”
Recalling a police barbecue he attended after watching Tropa, Wilson describes the cops’ excitement about the film by comparing it to geeks’ love of Star Wars, leaving us to wonder what a Tropa de Elite convention might look like. If Brazilian police view the film’s vigilante violence against civilians, some of them children, as glorious rather than cautionary, then Brazil may be moving in a frightening direction indeed.