“Elite Squad”, a stylistic descent into the drug wars of late 90’s Rio de Janeiro, is narrated by Roberto Nascimento (Wagner Moura), a captain in BOPE (Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais), a military unit of Rio’s state police. These voiceovers are omnipresent, beginning to end, and make absolutely clear the film’s point-of-view. While there is the concept of an Unreliable Narrator, in which the credibility of the person speaking is compromised, coloring the film in his or her own un-trustworthy light, Captain Nascimento comes across as an extremely Reliable Narrator. I believed everything he told me; it’s just that everything he told me left me wondering if he was the hero he thinks is.
His voiceover is entirely free of doubt. As he takes us through the dizzying inner-workings of the Brazilian police force and those they typically keep in line by letting them do whatever they want so long as the cops on the beat get paid, Nascimento sounds like a guy writing a tell-all book after the fact. He is not seeking truth because he already knows the truth. He knows all the cops in Rio are corrupt; he knows the drug dealers rule the favelas; he knows the rich Rio kids who smoke dope are no better than the drug dealers they buy it from; he knows that BOPE, and BOPE alone, is the city’s savior, That makes him sound like a one dimensional character, and, rest assured, he is, even when the film segues to his personal life where a baby, as it must be, is on the way, prompting to Nascimento to ponder, as he has to, retirement.
This is stock, no more, no less, existing as motivation but betraying the emptiness underneath all the movie’s gloss, and its unchallenging nature in a seemingly limitless situation that would seem to have all sorts of angles. And it’s all conveyed, of course, in Shaky Cam Cinema, as are the action sequences, naturally, and everything in-between. These jittery frames are not intended to emblemize anything, they just are, an empty stylistic device that (probably) inadvertently hones in on the ethics of all the people involved.
All of Nascimento’s problems in the home are merely a narrative ruse for him to train a couple replacements, newbies coming into BOPE with, well, if not an innocence, necessarily, an inquisitive attitude, a chance for “Elite Squad” to pose some questions and seek some answers. Neto (Caio Junqueira), however, is pretty much a nonentity. André (André Ramiro), on the other hand, bears promise, particularly because a character who seems more willing to step back and consider, evinced by the way in which he moonlights as a law student. This puts him in a class with those rich kids, including Maria (Fernanda Machado) who works at an NGO helping kids a nearby favela. He doesn’t tell her he’s a cop, because he can’t, because to do so would put her in a jeopardy .
This leads to classroom scenes where André’s fellow students lash out against the police and he shouts back at them. What’s interesting is these scenes are not discussions; there is not back and forth; there is no examining each side of the issue; it is mark your line in the sand and don’t come across, or else. And that, frankly, is “Elite Squad” in its entirety,
And by staking its claim with Nascimento – that voiceover – it essentially falls on the side of BOPE, whether it intends to or not, brought home in the training sequence that kicks off the third act which could have been cribbed from a hundred other boot camp movies, and that concludes with its members literally invading the favela, as if it’s war, which it is. And it becomes that Machivellian idea of how war cannot be avoided, only postponed to the advantage of others, and so the Tropa de Elite may as well just get on with what will come anyway.