José Padilha may not be a household name in the U.S., but the Brazilian filmmaker has developed quite a reputation in his home country. In 2002, he co-directed Bus 174, which won a number of awards on the festival circuit, and his 2007 film, Elite Squad, which won the Silver Bear in Berlin, generated a firestorm of controversy and became Brazil's highest grossing film at the box office. Elite Squad had a strong right-wing sensibility. Padilha's portrayal of the Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais showed, in graphic detail, the BOPE's tactics and training for combating favela violence in Rio de Janeiro, and many critics felt Padilha was displaying fascist tendencies. For the sequel, however, the filmmaker did an about-face. Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, now the highest grossing film in Brazilian film history, is an equally riveting—and decidedly liberal-leaning—sequel. The series's hero, Nascimento (Wagner Moura), is promoted to Secretary of Security, and while that means he's still responsible for controlling crime in the slums of Rio, he must now battle corrupt politicians as well. Padilha, who alternates between making big-budget action films and documentaries like Garapa (about malnutrition in the country's sertão region), seems to revel in pushing the social and emotional buttons in his country. He spoke with Slant about his new film and why and how he chooses to chronicle the social problems of his native Brazil.
Elite Squad was all about building up the system; Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is all about breaking it down. What changed since the first film? Why make the sequel?
In order for me to explain this to you, I have to go back to Bus 174, a story of a street kid who is mistreated by the state and the police. Instead of educating them, they make him worse, beat him up, throw him into crowded jails, and he goes nuts. The state's treatment of juvenile delinquents and the poor tends to generate violent criminals. When I did Elite Squad I thought the same about the police. They make low wages. They have to deal with thousands of violent gangs, who have big weapons. And they have to operate with a corrupt government. Elite Squad [featured] not only violent criminals, but also violent and corrupt cops. Elite Squad 2 provides an answer to why the state behaves this way. To answer this I had to look at the politics and why they do things that generate the state of affairs that generate the poverty, etc. [For the sequel] I had a cop being promoted so he could direct the politicians. He understands the system and what causes the wars he fought as a younger cop. It moves the audience forward.
Elite Squad got criticized for being a fascist.
Let me explain this to you. Looking at the issue itself, fascism is a political movement whose aim is to control the state, close congress, and control the media and education, etc. That has nothing whatsoever to do with Brazilian police. They don't want to control the state. They want nothing to do with fascism. It's observational. Why this polemic arrives is because up to the 1980s, in Brazil, right-wing dictatorship was ruled by generals, with no elections. All the films were done from a Marxist perspective. If you make a film that way, it's a guy striking against a factory, or pushed out of society, like Sandro in Bus 174, or Hector Babenco's Pixote—someone on the fringe of society, a classic Marxist hero. The first Brazilian film to have a cop as a protagonist was Elite Squad in 2007. Why? No one has ever made a Marxist film with a cop as a hero.
After Bus 174 was praised, I decided to shake things up on purpose. I'm going to talk about the same issue [as Bus 174], not from a street kid's point of view, but from the violent cop's perspective. I knew it would be controversial. Audiences didn't care. It became the most popular film in Brazil. Nascimento became possibly the most famous film character in Brazil ever. I got the Golden Bear in Berlin and it was handed to me by Costa-Gravas! But all this comes from going against the paradigm of doing Marxist-oriented films. I'm not a Marxist myself. I think it's outdated. There are smarter ways to think of social processes that don't have you choose between right/left wing. Elite Squad 2 has no debate; everyone who thought Elite Squad was fascist loves The Enemy Within. A lot of other people [have since] made films about cops.
What research did you do to learn about and what access did you have to the Elite Squad and the corruption of the police and government? There's a disclaimer on this new film that it's a work of fiction, but it's not far from fact.
My goal in all my films is to come up with a plot to have a character with a dramatic arc that will be interesting. But at the same time, I want this plot/character trajectory to represent reality in a close way—but not too simple. People are complex. A right-wing media guy, a left-wing congressmen, a wife and son, a politician…reality is influenced by a lot of factors. I make films about organized social systems. Do we want to live in a society that works like this? Do we want the drug trade and police to be organized like this? It works for me because some issues are hard for us to debate, so we use the movies to debate them. It's one thing to debate a character in a film versus a real policeman. You can talk about the invisible kids in Bus 174 rather than the real kids that you don't see. Film is a great medium for making social debate possible.
And you have very vivid images in your films.
Images are powerful this way. It's direct. You are inside the thing that's taking place. Literature is indirect; you have to imagine things.
How did you determine the narrative structure of the film, Nascimento's voiceover, but also the three-quarter flashback, the observational approach style, and the personal story of Nascimento and his son?
One thing I try to do with my plot is not to take it away from the character and its reality. You never see James Bond in his house or with those who work for him—you only know him. I don't like that kind of thing. If Nascimento is fighting with a politician, his wife and son are fighting that too. I keep the character's life inside the story. It takes a lot of work to come up with a plot that works like that. I use the voiceover because the premise of the film demands it, like Goodfellas; it's what it's like to be in the mob in New York from the perspective of a gangster. Scorsese makes a brilliant film because he makes it on the gangster's terms; we love Henry [in Goodfellas] even though he's killing people. Elite Squad is like being a cop in an environment as violent as Rio, and what the cop thinks/how he sees the world. I chose a first-person perspective here because it's the right one. Nascimento, like Henry in Goodfellas, is full of facts and he tortures people, but you bond with him. It's also why the film became polemic.
What is it like to film some of those intense and ambitious action sequences?
I have my style of shooting, which I got from shooting documentaries, and I apply it to the action scenes, so when I shoot an action scene, I'm looking for shots that connect the actions. If I'm in a helicopter [over a] slum being invaded, I want to see the face of the character and the action down below. I like shots with different levels—something up front and something happening in the background. I crave those; they make the action scene come alive. They are hard to do. If you shoot in separation, a guy running/shooting, it's easier. But I prefer to shoot the other way. In Garapa, if you can talk about a character talking about hunger, and show a kid eating something inappropriate, it makes it more meaningful. I also don't like giving marks to actors; I like to give them freedom to move around. I give marks to the cameraman. When the actor says this line, you have to be on the gun. It makes the camera move to find the story, and that helps get the audience right there.
You have made other films, like Garapa, and you follow them with box-office hits like Elite Squad 2. What is your goal as a filmmaker—to expose all of the social problems of Brazilian society?
I don't think this way. I make films in my heart. Garapa was a very important film for me—maybe the most important I ever shot. It's dear to me, regardless of how many people will see it. Elite Squad is the same. I do the film on its own terms, and I do it in the best style. The [social problems] in my films are my problems I see in my day-to-day life. They are what my country and I deal with. But they are also universal. The Wire is like Elite Squad, but it's not in Rio. I don't like making romantic comedies. I like making films about things that matter. The language of film is strong. It can create strong statements and create awareness. And that's from my documentary background.