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After watching and enjoying "City of God," I was highly recommended to watch "Elite Squad." While it's an enjoyable action movie, I was left perplexed about the moral and / or theme of Elite Squad.

In "City of God," characters commit similar heinous act, but I could see two messages, 1) characters' growth and their actions are often a result of happenstance; and 2) not all criminals are the same--some have dreams and loves and insecurities.

However, in Elite Squad, I struggle to see any message and theme. It seems to be mostly a sociological study of an institution in the form of a movie.

  • What does the mental struggle of Captain Nascimento mean?

  • What's the role of Neto (almost chosen to be a successor, then died due to chance)?

  • Matias's transformation from a law student to a killer means to say what?

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As a brazilian and an "Elite Squad" fan, I will try to provide an answer based on what I have heard José Padilha (the director) say on interviews and on my personal interpretation.

In my opinion, there are three main ideas to be inferred from the plot:

Captain Nascimento became a violent man

  • As you know, "Elite Squad" depicts the life of the film narrator Roberto Nascimento, the captain of an elite squad in the police of Rio de Janeiro, who is awaiting for a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel and is seeking a replacement so he could spend more time with his wife and his upcoming son
  • As he goes through this situation, he plunges into an inner struggle after he chooses Neto to be his successor and the latter proves to be the wrong choice as he is too euphoric to command the squad
  • Later on, Neto is assassinated by drug dealers, and Nascimento explores his death to turn André Matias - Neto's best friend - into his replacement
  • At some point, Nascimento becomes too stressed about his work and becomes aggressive even at home, repelling his pregnant wife away from him
  • Therefore, you can learn by analyzing his life that he became a violent man in his personal life primarily due to his actions as a member of BOPE, a police division that is shown as extremely violent to the point of using torture as a means of obtaining information

The majority of the police force is corrupt

  • With the exception of the soldiers of BOPE, wich is the elite squad of the police, all the other members of the police force are depicted as involved in some kind of criminal activity, including prostitution and illegal games

Most left-wing people are hypocrites

  • The middle-class students who work at the NGO that supports the poor people from the favela are presented as leftists and drug consumers/distributers, funding the same drug selling system that they criticize

Synthesizing, we could say that the plot is about a man's inner struggle to reconcile his work and his family, but it's also about social issues such as the police abuses - whether it's in the the form of violence or corruption - and the drug dealing system

  • 1
    Also, if you haven't watched it yet, I strongly recommend the 2003 film "Carandiru" by director Hector Babenco, based on the true story about a massacre that occurred in a brazilian prison in 1992. It was adapted from the homonymous book by doctor Drauzio Varella, who worked at the prison and listened to the life stories of many of the convicts. – Rafael Santin Feb 26 '15 at 14:55
  • Thank you for your explanation. I'm certainly not claiming that my view of the movie is the correct view, because anyone's taste is different of course. Having said that, I feel that the movie is much more powerful for Brazilian, for whom the issue of crime and police violence is dear. In contrast, I think anyone watching "City of God" could feel immersed, in the sense that we all can sympathize with people being pushed to do bad things. Does that sound fair? – Heisenberg Feb 27 '15 at 21:47
  • Yes, you got it – Rafael Santin Feb 28 '15 at 3:51
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It's basically a political and societal message: the movie denounces authoritarian and fascistic behavior in Brazilian police corporations, but also constantly puts the blame for it on "the system", which, it appears to be director José Padilha's view, is the pervasive corruption that leaks from Brazilian society into its institutions, and which becomes a kind of self-feeding organism once it touches the state's structures of power. (This view is eventually put more clearly in Tropa de Elite 2, and even more in Padilha's Netflix series "The Mechanism"). It's also not subtle at all about directly quoting Foucault's "Discipline and Punish"; and although my only background on that particular book is a quick skim over its Wikipedia page, a lot of its points seem to be addressed as subtext (or, rather, text) in the movie.

The interesting part, though, is that this flew over the heads of most Brazilians, or, you could say, we gave it "our own" interpretation: we found catharsis in seeing actual and "potential" criminals being killed and tortured by police in the plot, their faces shot with shotguns at point-blank range in order to "ruin their funerals". Captain Nascimento became a kind of national hero, an expression of our own frustration towards rampant crime, and of our hatred of the criminals who made (and still make) us wonder if we're coming home alive by the end of any given day. Quotes from Tropa de Elite quickly became parlance in probably the entire country, too.

So, you could argue, an ironic, "meta" thing went on with our reaction to the movie: instead of simply fulfilling its goal of exposing fascism in Brazilian institutions, Tropa de Elite brought to light and revealed what some would describe as "fascism" in our own views, seeing right in what the movie attempted to depict as wrong.

Considering that these views were mostly held by the middle class, and probably not so much by the poor living in favelas, you can also argue that the movie proves the point, with the meta thing described above, that it makes in Matias' law school class scenes, where they quote (?) Foucault and say the state is there to protect the rich by oppressing the poor -- only it protects the middle and upper middle classes, which are most normally not profiled as potential criminals as often as the poor are.

The cherry on the film's irony cake is that, although it was officially a 2008 release, its widespread success and cultural influence took place in 2007, when it leaked and spread into every (middle class?) Brazilian household through rampant piracy.

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