Monday, October 22, 2007; Page A17
RIO DE JANEIRO -- After taking a phone call last week, director José Padilha stepped onto the patio of his studio and told a business partner that the intense discussion provoked by his latest film had spread to yet another sphere of Brazilian society.
"Now they're going to speak about it in Congress," Padilha said, looking at his watch. "In 20 minutes, someone is going to take the floor and start."
The film, called "Elite Squad," centers on the police officers who wage war against the drug-dealing gangs that rule Rio's slums, called favelas. The movie has put almost everyone -- from the slums, to the penthouses, to the halls of government -- in the mood to talk about this city's violence.
Even before it was released in theaters this month, "Elite Squad" was Brazil's most-watched movie of the season: The country's leading polling firm estimated that about 11.5 million adults -- as well as an unknown number of children -- had seen the movie on pirated DVDs before its first screenings.
Police initially tried to keep the movie out of theaters, fearing that scenes depicting officers torturing slum dwellers portray their ranks in a bad light. Critics of the police argued that the movie was too sympathetic to corrupt officers, because it presents the action from their point of view. Some nongovernmental organizations objected to the film's suggestion that some activists have aligned themselves with the drug gangs to get access to the favelas.
To Padilha, rather than being controversial, such suggestions should ring true to anyone who has spent any time in a city with one of the world's highest murder rates.
For decades, most of Rio's 600-plus favelas have been ruled by drug-dealing gangs. The police, both military and civil, have waged war on those groups, and they are often criticized for being as brutal -- if not more so -- than the gangs. Shootouts are common, and favela residents are often caught in the crossfire.
On Wednesday, for example, a dozen people -- including a 4-year-old boy -- were killed during a battle between police and gang members in Rio. Local television showed images of residents running in fear as police helicopters circled overhead -- images that people here have been living with for years.
"None of this is rocket science," said Padilha, 40. "These are very simple concepts, and they are all here for everyone to see. Just look around. It's obvious. But just by stating it in a way that shows a little bit of everything in there, it is making this movie an object of social discussion."
Padilha said his intention was to show the drug war from the perspective of a cop and to let the audience judge whether the cop is good, bad or both. For those with firm opinions about Rio's violence, the movie's refusal to impose its own moral is offensive.
Arnaldo Bloch, a columnist for Rio's largest newspaper, O Globo, wrote that showing the unvarnished point of view of a member of the military police special favela units was the equivalent of apologizing for their actions. He labeled the movie "fascist."
The record turnout at theaters -- even though many viewers had already seen the movie at home on DVD -- indicates that a lot of people disagree. Enterprising street dealers have tried to latch on to the movie's success by throwing together footage of police operations and selling DVDs they claim to be sequels.
"I think it's a great movie, and it just shows things that really happen," said Cesar de Assis, 35, a resident of a favela called Chapeu Mangueira. "I've seen the police come into the community, and it happens exactly the way the movie shows."
Miguel Colker, 20, is a student at the Catholic University of Rio, the setting for a couple of scenes in the film. He viewed a pirated copy of "Elite Squad," and its effect on him, he said, has been sobering, literally.
"I haven't smoked pot since I saw the movie," said Colker, who described himself as an occasional user of drugs. "I always knew that of course the drugs here are controlled by the gangs, but seeing it in the movie shocked me a little."
Padilha is a Rio native whose previous film, a documentary called "Bus 174," told the life story of a man who hijacked a city bus, then was killed by the military police. "Elite Squad" was conceived as a companion piece to that film, showing the "other side of the same coin," Padilha said.
He started by trying to tell the story in documentary form. But he quickly realized that police officers wouldn't talk openly about their experiences, he said, so he interviewed about 20 officers and turned their off-the-record stories into fiction. Earlier this month, police officials ordered him to identify the officers who had helped him. Padilha did not appear for questioning after Rio's governor took his side, telling him not to be afraid to defy the police.
The film is fast-paced and hard around the edges, depicting violence unblinkingly. The aesthetic is intended to overwhelm the viewer, Padilha said, not allowing time to make analytical judgments until the film is over. He compares it to downloading a computer program that threatens to crash the system.
"It's creating a chaos of confusion, and that chaos is very interesting from my point of view," Padilha said. "I'm not involved in it now. I'm just sitting back and watching."