In Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, a much more intricate and exhilarating act than its predecessor, Elite Squad, director José Padilha catches up with the Brazilian zeitgeist: Paramilitary groups have “finally” ousted drug traffickers out of their slums, promptly turning the communities into big businesses for themselves. Police officers and government officials cash in under the aegis of social pacification, exterminating whoever stands in their way. In this new state of affairs, Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura) has retired from the Rio de Janeiro’s feared Special Police Operations Battalion (BOPE) and is lured back in as an off-combat behind-the-scenes strategist. Once he realizes he’s just a pawn of a very elaborate system of orgiastic corruption and banal barbarism, he takes action.
Brazilsploitation films frequently offer very little besides the Schadenfreude spectacle of aesthetic slickness mapped onto the darkness of expendably chiseled Brazilian limbs. The new aesthetics of hunger if you will—bigger, faster, and gleaming. But if international audiences can get their fix of outsourced hyper-masculinity gone lethally berserk, the kind of homoerotic frisson that must be displaced onto the Other, director José Padilha gives us more than just favela pornography. An impeccable exposition of the structures of Brazilian power in which the gun is the necessary phallic prosthesis that guarantees existential visibility for the socially castrated classes and the “democratic” vote is the ultimate market commodity (sold to the highest bidder), Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is pure pedagogic bliss.
Like most pedagogic techniques for the uninitiated, however, it depends on what we may call “strategic essentialisms” in order to draw its pictures legibly. Here the figure of the good Brazilian citizen is split in two, the no-nonsense, properly butch hero (Nascimento), whose knowledge is practical, and violent, and the wimpy intellectual with his feminizing erudite ways, represented by Diogo Fraga (Irandhir Santos), Nascimento’s ex-wife’s academic husband. The fact that these two men will butt heads throughout the film only to find out that they’re actually after the same thing—those ironically stitched words across the Brazilian flag (“order and progress”)—works to blur what may at first glance seem like binaries into a complex and dynamic network that no one can escape. The system has no center, Nascimento tells us, and it always wins.
It’s Moura’s spotless embodiment of the principled Brazilian man for whom aggression and being coincide that renders the film such an immersive experience. The unapologetic roughness of his voice animating the narration like some kind of rape, Nascimento represents Latin masculinity personified: the embittered and irresistibly authoritarian father/lover, too butch to fall for the illusions of life that does everyone else in. More Che than Rambo, his physicality is always attached to his analytical skills. Unlike the trigger-happy and impulsive ruthlessness of the bureaucratic and military criminals, his murdering is always moral. Not only does he always know exactly what to do, he knows exactly what to say—as in one of the last scenes, when Nascimento takes the stand in a courtroom, some gray hairs here and there giving him even more gravitas, and throws all of his punches linguistically, with the eloquence of a leader, not just a warrior.
Elite Squad and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within have both been about Nascimento trying to pass on his invincible masculinity to someone else, and failing. If in the first film he wanted to get out of the police force out of respect for his wife, who was expecting a baby, in the newest film that baby is already a pot-smoking teenager practicing judo with his dad. And yet Nascimento’s son doesn’t seem able to handle his father’s inheritance. “I didn’t like your loose hands. I want you holding tight,” Nascimento tells him as they wrestle with each other on the tatami. Nascimento’s trajectory is one of constantly trying to give up his guns and always ending up with one in his hands. Uncastratable, incorruptible, and immortal.