By Brian Lafferty
February 13, 2012 (San Diego) – Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is populated with politicians more corrupt than Randy “Duke” Cunningham and a slew of dirty cops. With so many stock characters and potentially tiresome tropes like chases and shootouts, the film could have easily become a hotbed of clichés. Elite Squad, against all odds, transcends them all with a complex script. Nothing – not the characters, plot, themes, nothing – in this movie is as simple as black and white.
The film opens with a brutal prison riot that ends badly. At the center of the debacle is Lt. Colonel Nascimento (Wagner Moura), a hero in the public eye, and Diogo Fraga (Irandhir Santos) a human rights activist married to Nascimento’s ex-wife. Nascimento accepts a government position in the security department and is soon swept up in political corruption. After drug dealers are eradicated from a district, the government replaces them with a militia run by Major Rocha (Sandro Rocha), with the support of the Governor, the Secretary of Security, among other politically greedy politicians.
So who’s the bad guy? It could easily be Fraga, who shamelessly uses the prison riot fiasco to politically further himself. He also married Nascimento’s ex-wife and has, in Nascimento’s eyes, poisoned his son’s views of his father. Santos colors his character with pomposity and self-righteousness.
Or it could be the unholy duo of Fortunato and Rocha, who are corrupt as hell and extort and even murder their own constituents they claim to protect. Fortunato reminded me somewhat of Paul Sorvino’s televangelist character in Oh God, only evil. Using the airways to spout off his agenda and views, he’s a greedy buffoon no less ethical than Willie Stark. Rocha is thoroughly detestable, having no regard for human life. He has no qualms about brutally murdering a pretty investigative journalist, but inside his muscular physique and mean face lies a coward.
Or maybe it’s Nascimento himself. In situations like this, you can either be a part of the problem or a part of the solution. He chooses to be a part of the problem. He’s conflicted in the same way a middle school outcast doesn’t know who his real friends are. He could have easily done something about it, but it takes forever for him to grow a conscience.
Elite Squad is brutal. The opening sequence contains a nasty killing of portly cartel leader who is beaten to a pulp, doused with gasoline, and lit on fire. Later, Rocha and his newly formed militia pummel the crap out of a man who protests his measly cut.
These scenes feel cringingly authentic, thanks to the cinema verite shooting style. Director Jose Padilha’s handheld camera moves smoothly around the frame, always motivated and never autonomous. The camera hits its marks with pinpoint accuracy, never straying into gratuitous chaos even in scenes of tumult, like the prison riot. The handheld camera brings an immediacy and realism to the events. It’s almost like a documentary.
Nascimento comments on the goings-on with alternately ironic, blunt, and thoughtful narration. He honestly describes his feelings the same way a book expresses a character’s thoughts to a reader.
Elite Squad reminded me of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which was based on the events of the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s rise to power. The drug dealers are the miscreant farmer who mistreats the animals and Rocha is Napoleon the pig. The historical parallels – a tyrannical system overthrown and replaced with an even worse system – are even more disquieting.
Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is now playing at the Reading Gaslamp.
A Variance Films release. Director: Jose Padilha. Screenplay: Braulio Mantovani, Jose Padilha, and Rodrigo Pimentel. Original Music: Pedro Bromfman. Cinematography: Lula Carvalho. Cast: Walter Moura, Irandhir Santos, Andre Ramiro, Milhem Cortaz, Maria Ribeiro, Seu Jorge, Sandro Rocha, Taina Muller, and Pedro Van-Held. 115 minutes. Unrated.