- The New York Times
RIO de JANEIRO, Oct. 13 — For Antônia Dalva de Souza, a new movie depicting the violent war between Rio’s drug gangs and an elite police military squad hit too close to home.
Her hillside house, with its flimsy hollow brick walls, was riddled by police bullets this year. A round scar on her upper arm came from a bullet fired in a recent police crackdown, she said. Another stray bullet killed her 5-year-old daughter, Joyce, in 1995, as she lay beside her in bed. She suspects the police fired the shot.
“They come in firing,” Ms. de Souza, 32, said. “My kids crawl under the bed when the shooting begins.”
Residents of the Vila Cruzeiro slum here, one of the more violent in Rio, say they have been under siege for the past month from the black-clad, beret-wearing State Police Special Operations Battalion, better known as BOPE by Brazilians. Battalion members ride in on heavy armored vehicles bearing the force’s symbol, a skull and crossed pistols, or on foot, moving with frightening, catlike speed and efficiency.
Like seemingly every other Rio resident, Ms. de Souza has seen “Tropa de Elite,” or “Elite Squad,” a new Brazilian drama based on life inside BOPE, which is tasked with combating the city’s drug traffickers.
The movie, which opened nationwide on Friday but last week in Rio and São Paulo, has offered a rare look into the battalion, which is depicted as killing and torturing, seemingly at will. It is causing many Brazilians to reflect on what level of violence is acceptable from the police, especially in Rio, a city with a homicide rate more than six times higher than New York City’s.
In particular, torture is presented in the film as a near constant aspect of urban violence in Brazil, with police officers and traffickers competing to outdo each other on the brutality scale.
Even before it hit theaters, “Elite Squad” was already on its way to becoming one of Brazil’s biggest movies. A pirated DVD version was seen by nearly 11.5 million people, the polling organization Ibope said.
Efforts by the Rio police to keep the movie out of theaters failed. And on Thursday a police colonel in an internal affairs unit demanded that José Padilha, the director, appear for questioning on Monday. Mr. Padilha said Friday that it was part of a police effort to root out the officers who helped him make “Elite Squad.” Gov. Sérgio Cabral of Rio advised him to ignore the request. “The police are trying to persecute everybody that worked on this film,” Mr. Padilha said.
No film has caused such a stir here since “City of God,” an acclaimed 2002 look at Rio’s favelas, or slums, from the perspective of drug dealers. “Elite Squad” has made almost everyone who has seen it squirm, prompting, for example, a debate about whether hedonistic drug use by Rio’s rich and middle class is to blame for the city’s war.
The film traces the true story of Operation Holiness, the 1997 BOPE effort to exterminate a drug gang working in a favela near the home of Rio’s archbishop. BOPE was tasked with making the area safe for a brief visit by Pope John Paul II.
During the four-month operation, BOPE killed about 30 people and arrested 30, including the two drug kingpins, said Rodrigo Pimentel, a former BOPE officer who led the operation and co-wrote the book that inspired the movie. At least two bystanders were among the dead.
Back then, BOPE had about 120 members and was considered a haven for honest officers in Rio. The force has grown to more than 400 today, and its reputation for being incorruptible is fading.
But its reputation for brutality is almost indisputable. In a city fed up with violent crime, the movie’s fictional protagonist, Capt. Roberto Nascimento, has been lionized by many here for his ruthless, deadly style in taking on criminals.
It is not unlike the way Americans have grown to admire the fictional Agent Jack Bauer of the television series “24,” whose no-holds-barred style strikes a chord in a society on edge over terrorist threats. Both men are deeply troubled. Captain Nascimento, played by the actor Wagner Moura, suffers from wrenching panic attacks and struggles to separate his violent night world from his family life.
The captain and his men incessantly slap drug suspects and cover their heads with plastic bags until they spit blood. “Put it on the pope’s tab,” the captain says when a fellow squad member asks him whether to finish off a torture victim. It was a line BOPE members often said during the real operation, Mr. Pimentel said.
Reactions to the Nascimento character seem to have broken down along class lines. “He brings security to us rich and middle-class people,” said Aletea de Souza, a fitness trainer, after a showing on Sunday in Leblon, one of Rio’s wealthiest neighborhoods. “I wouldn’t say he’s a hero, but he’s a barrier, between the good and the bad.”
In Vila Cruzeiro that kind of attitude is breeding concern that the film glorifies BOPE. “This is a dangerous movie,” said Nanko G. van Buuren, who directs the Brazilian Institute of Innovations in Social Health, a nongovernmental organization in the favela. “The BOPE are torturing, and they are killing, and that is not O.K.” Children in the favela wear black and playact torture sessions, placing plastic bags over the heads of friends, he said.
Mr. Padilha said the eye-for-an-eye reaction of many Brazilians surprised him. He said he set out to make a film denouncing violence and torture. Mr. Moura, the actor, said he thought it was “impossible that people in Finland or Sweden would see these police as heroes, police that torture and kill,” while many Brazilians clearly respect Captain Nascimento.
Mr. Pimentel, who resigned from BOPE in 1998 after six years, says the movie is arriving at a time of outrage among residents over violence in Rio. A particularly shocking case was the death in February of João Helio Fernandes, 6, who was dragged more than four miles by a seat belt after two teenagers stole his family’s car at gunpoint.
Mr. Pimentel said he became disillusioned with BOPE after Operation Holiness. “The police have forgotten their main mission,” he said. “We were not there to serve and protect. We were just fighting a private war against the drug traffickers.”