Tropa de Elite: Brazil’s dark sensation

Arthur Ituassu
2 November 2007

Capitão Nascimento arrives home in a nervous mood. His first child is due any day. But that is not the only thing on his mind. He worries about the favelas in Rio de Janeiro. His mind is breaking. This is not good for the leader of an elite regiment specialising in urban warfare.

Arthur Ituassu is professor of international relations at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His website is here

Among Arthur Ituassu's articles on Brazil in openDemocracy:

"Brazil: never the same again" (4 October 2005)

"Violence in Brazil: all are targets, all are guilty" (17 May 2006)

"Brazil at the crossroads" (15 August 2006)

"The green and yellow phoenix" (29 September 2006)

"Brazil, let's talk" (4 October 2006)

"Welcome to politics, Brazil" (1 November 2006)

"Brazil: the moral challenge" (18 April 2007)

Capitão Nascimento's organisation is the powerful Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais(Special Police Operations Regiment / Bope), a kind of Brazilian Swat team. It is called out - only when things get really bad - to undertake coordinated operations against criminal gangs in Rio. Bope's job is to solve - "clean" - the situation. Like the United States marines, Bope also works in areas outside the reach of the state it represents. In Rio, this "outside" is the "other country" of the overcrowded favelas and their drug gangs.

At home too, the pressure is on. His wife is pushing him to quit his job for the sake of the child to come. He promises he will and starts to look for someone to replace him. He can't just leave: he needs a strong, intelligent professional as his successor, a man without feelings.

After all, you have to be tough - a real man - to work for Bope. The black gear and chilling symbol (a sword inside a skull) are not just for show: the regiment is used to getting what it wants, if necessary via torture and killing. Don't forget, this is war.

Then, something happens in Capitão Nascimento's life that transports him into another dimension: he becomes a national hero, and the subject of intense debate about where Brazilian society is going.

The aesthetics of violence

The vehicle of the transformation is a film, one that has become an enormous hit in Brazil and the subject of frenzied interest and controversy since its release on 5 October 2007: Tropa de elite http://www.tropadeeliteofilme.com.br, directed by José Padilha (who won international acclaim for the documentary Ônibus 174). The film's main character, Capitão Nascimento, is played by the actor Wagner Moura.

Nascimento's narrative is at the heart of the film: a "clean" policeman in a dirty world of drug-dealers and corrupt cops, who is consumed by his job and has no life outside it, and who now seeks a replacement so he can live with his child (with or without his wife, it does not matter).

Nascimento's life and the film have shaken the country. Many of the more than a million Brazilians who have already seen it in the cinema (and an estimated 11 million viewed it on the net before its release after an early version was leaked) have broken into applause at "his" performance. They view him as a beacon of hope and Bope as a rare example of a Brazilian institution that really works.

The national debate has exploded in these weeks. There are dozens of articles about the film and its impact, and endless interviews: with José Padilha, Wagner Moura, Luiz Eduardo Soares (the sociologist and former public-security minister who co-wrote the book Elite da tropa which inspired the movie), and Rodrigo Pimentel and André Batista (Soares's co-authors, whose experience as young military-police officers and eventual Bope recruits the film also depicts). The book itself has sold over 100,000 copies, an enormous number for Brazil.

The arena of dispute was quickly occupied by three clear, distinct positions. Taken together, in the way that they work to polarise opinion rather than to build consensus on the urgent social issues that Brazil faces, they well represent how politics in Brazil is currently being conducted.

The first position praises Bope as the country's finest. This elite really is an elite. The film contrasts the professional standards of Bope's officers from (for example) Rio's military police, depicted as lazy, fat, corrupt and inefficient, whose commanders would dump bodies in each other's zones of responsibility to avoid the bureaucratic headache of having dead people in your territory.

The second position condemns Bope's moral corruption and blames the film for eulogising (by means of a "fascist" [Arnaldo Bloch] or at least "irresponsible" aesthetic) a violent and deviant institution.

The third position blames the Brazilian people, who have been morally corrupted after decades of rule by amoral institutions such as Bope. It is pointless to blame Bope or the film: Tropa de elite is an artistic depiction of a true reality.

Also in openDemocracy:

Rodrigo de Almeida, "Brazil: the shadow of urban war" (18 July 2007)

A question of responsibility

Tropa de elite exposes two aspects of Brazil's tragedy. First, its endemic violence (it is significant that the first question raised by foreign journalists after the award of the football world cup to Brazil in 2014 was about security and the safety of the fans). Second, the fact that it is a society where key institutions have been corrupted yet which lacks common political and intellectual reference-points to help it escape from this condition.

But the film is more, and less, than a straight depiction of reality. It also transforms the "reality" its aesthetics create for purposes of "pure" consumer entertainment that carry no critical or ethical responsibility. The effect has been felt in Brazil's television news programmes, which now show Bope's latest operation or a helicopter-led assault by black-clad caveiras (skulls) who shoot drug-dealers (real or suspected? No one is asking) as they run for their life through the favelas. Tropa de elite has thus returned the debt it borrowed from reality, and with interest.

Such images suggest a new kind of moral education for the Brazilian viewers who consume them in their homes: a television treatise on the ideas of violence, honour and duty. In this sense, Tropa de elite comes at the end of the era of what Hannah Arendt called "authentic politics"; it represents too the antithesis of Octavio Paz's idea of politics as an effort to transform society into poetry by the creative exercise of liberty.

Brazil misses such authentic politics and political creativity - which only become possible when there is a foundation of shared, respected frameworks of understanding as a foundation to address its immense problems: violence, inequality of income and opportunity, underachievement in education and health. Brazil does not need more of the dynamics that transform reality into a product to be consumed, and reproduce the logic of exclusion that disfigures the country's social life.

Brazil needs to learn how to live peacefully as a political community. This requires a far different project than the mere expansion of consumption. The responsibility of creating it is one that all Brazilians must accept, including Capitão Nascimento, including artists.

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