The other particularly notable film coming out on DVD this week is Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, a Brazilian cop thriller that made my list of last year’s 10 best movies. Hardly anyone else picked it for end-of-year awards, which isn’t that surprising. Despite strong reviews, the film got a severely limited release last November, only playing on seven screens in the whole country at its peak. Some savvier promotion might have gotten this movie the audience it deserved.
The film’s main character is Nascimento (Wagner Moura), a police lieutenant colonel based in Rio. He narrates the sprawling plot, even though we see him and his car get shot up in the opening scene. The story flashes back to his demotion caused by political pressure brought on by Fraga (Irandhir Santos), a shrill professor and left-wing activist who’s brought in to help calm a prison riot and instead watches as Nascimento’s cops kill a bunch of prisoners. (The fact that the cops were acting to save Fraga’s life appears to be lost on him.) Anyway, Nascimento’s cronies appoint him to a secret police squad in charge of surveillance of the drug gangs. The new post lets Nascimento in on just how far drug money goes in his country, reaching all the way to the legislators in Brasilia. As much as Nascimento hates Fraga, who is not only staunchly anti-police but also the husband of Nascimento’s ex-wife, the cop starts to think that the professor might be the only one who can help him clean up Brazil.
This will probably remind you of that other recent Brazilian crime thriller, City of God, which got much wider distribution. It’s directed by José Padilha, who previously helmed a documentary called Bus 174. Padilha directs this with more grit and less flash than Fernando Meirelles did in City of God, but he strikes even deeper when it comes to the root causes of corruption in his nation. Nascimento’s narration clearly lays out just how entrenched bribery and graft are in Brazil’s politics, journalism, and public life. The drug dealers in the favelas turn out to be small potatoes next to the bad guys here. Indeed, the crooked cops routinely execute the dealers who work for them when they demand too much or become a liability. The film insists on just how hard work it is to fight the powers that be. It ends with many of the villains dead or in prison, but some of them do get away cleanly, and the purchased politicians merely retrench instead of reforming their wicked ways.
All this is couched in a pretty good action movie. As I mentioned in my Top 10 list, this is the sequel to a much-inferior film called simply Elite Squad that was also directed by Padilha. You don’t need to have seen the original to appreciate the density and flavor of this thriller. The fate of Nascimento’s loyal right-hand man André Mathias (André Ramiro), one of the heroes of the first film, is carried out with chilling brutality. The emotional counterweight to this is Nascimento’s attempts to connect with his angry teenage son (Pedro Van Held) who’s drifting away from him. The movie calls to mind some recent Italian films like Il Divo and Gomorrah in the way it balances entertainment value, social consciousness, and human drama. Elite Squad: The Enemy Within was submitted by Brazil for consideration for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, but didn’t make the list of nominees. Those choices had better be damn good to justify leaving off this movie.