Category Archives: Brazil

The Elite Squad (2007)


Elite Squad DVDCapitao Nascimento (Wagner Moura)–a veteran of the BPOE (Special Police Operation Battalion) narrates the violently, explosive Brazilian film The Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite). When the film begins, the Captain is under a lot of pressure, and he’s beginning to lose his nerve for the everyday violent confrontations with criminals, drug dealers and crooked police officers. Against the backdrop story of the Pope’s impending visit, Nascimento must find a replacement due to his imminent reassignment to the training of new recruits. There are two candidates for the post: the impulsive Neto (Caio Junqueira) and the studious, serious Matias (Andre Ramiro).

Many Brazilian crime films focus on the seamy criminal life in this poverty-stricken country. The Elite Squad focuses on police corruption, and since the film is based on the memoirs of a former BPOE officer, there’s some amazing information here. Just watch the endless scenes of police corruption, and you will find yourself wondering how this country will ever pull itself out of the mire of poverty and crime. In some scenes, police fight over bribery turf, with several groups of officers strong-arming the same business owners, and in other scenes, police squad cars are stripped by officers who make a lucrative living selling the stolen car parts on the side.

The Elite Squad is a non-linear narrative, and the film begins with new police recruits Neto and Matias in the middle of a horrendous firefight. Then the film goes back to 6 months earlier to explain how these two men found themselves cornered under fire in the middle of a ghetto. This part of the story comprises the first half of the film. The second half of the film depicts Neto and Matias attending BPOE training and Nascimento’s selection of his replacement.

I found the first half of the film with its exploration of social issues riveting. One sub-theme, for example, is how the rich do-gooder kids pride themselves on their open mindedness and superior civic responsibilities etc and yet actively contribute to the drug trade. The second half of the film seems to be fairly standard fare and a glorification of the fascistic BPOE. The BOPE training camp makes GI Jane look like a holiday camp for sissies in comparison. Still if you are interested in Brazilian film and want to see Brazilian police corruption in its glory, then The Elite Squad  is well worth catching. The scenes detailing police corruption, the scams and how they work the system–including the fiddling of the murder statistics were phenomenal. From director Jose Padilla.

Leave a comment

Filed under Brazil, Crime

Manda Bala (2007)

 “Organized crime has entered the very centre of power.”

“Tell me a place in the world where politicians are not sons of bitches” observes Jamil, a jaded policeman from Sao Paolo’s anti-kidnapping division in the excellent documentary Manda Bala. Admitting that there are not enough police to protect the wealthy elite in San Paolo, Jamil’s job is to solve kidnappings; he’s just one part of the chain of corruption and crime in a place where the phenomenally rich and extremely poor rub shoulders. But here in Sao Paulo, with the “world’s largest private fleet of helicopters,” the wealthy often take to the skies, negotiating the city through a series of roof top helicopter landing pads. This is one way–perhaps the only way–in Sao Paolo to avoid confrontations with the poor.

manda balaManda Bala (aka Send a Bullet) examines the nature of corruption and class division through a handful of Sao Paulo residents. There’s an affluent plastic surgeon who specializes in reconstructing ears removed by kidnappers, and there’s a man who owns and operates a frog farm. A kidnapping victim describes her ordeal at the hands of brutal kidnappers, and although she remains remarkably calm when recalling how her ear was carved off of her head, there’s the sense that the veneer of tranquility is brittle and ready to shatter. Also included in the film is an interview with a balaclava-clad kidnapper who very succinctly describes why and how he developed a career from kidnapping and maiming the wealthy. Remorse is beside the point; to the kidnapper it’s a matter of survival. Establishing networks of accomplices, the kidnapper argues that he returns a chunk of the loot to his own impoverished neighbourhood–a ghetto in Sao Paolo. Obviously after a number of these lucrative crimes, the kidnapper could afford his own sprawling estate in the country, but instead he chooses to remain with his own people.

Other segments include a man who, for the camera, is known as Mr. M. He describes the need for bulletproof cars and takes a course titled: “How to Drive Your Bullet-Proof Car and Avoid Getting Kidnapped.” With grainy footage of various brutal kidnapping tapes interspersed with the interviews of Sao Paolo residents, we begin to get the idea that Sao Paolo is not for the faint of heart. But what is the thread that binds all these Brazilians together? The film makes it perfectly clear that crime and corruption begins at the top, and referring to the corrupt political system, one man argues the choices are simple: “you either steal with a pen or a gun.”

In a country in which politicians are free from civil courts, elected officials run amok with so called public funds, lining their own fat foreign bank accounts while laundering money through various mythical public projects. The film follows the career of a politician who “became a gangster not a governor.” Jader Barbalho–a student leader under Brazil’s military dictatorship went to law school and rose through positions in the government. As a senator, it’s charged that his government programmes looted the country–ensuring, of course that the rich (Jarbalho in this case) stay richer and the poor stay…well, poorer. This section of the film establishes that the food chain of crime and corruption underlying Brazilian society is responsible for the horrendous conditions in Sao Paolo. One interviewee who attempted to force Barbalho to answer for his crimes asks: “do judges in Brazil see people in the same way or do they have difficulties in sending to jail people of their own class?” And this is, of course to anarchists, a rhetorical question.

Another interviewee seems at a loss to explain exactly why Barbalho remains untouchable for his crimes: “I am embarrassed that we have politicians that have stolen so much public money to make themselves rich while people remain in extreme poverty and yet they keep electing them.” Perhaps the answer to that one is that some votes are bought and paid for.

From director Jason Kohn, this fascinating film’s tagline is “When the rich steal from the poor…the poor steal the rich.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Brazil, Documentary, Political/social films

Manoushe (1992)

Boring, freakish fantasy

Manoushe, touted as a “gypsy love story” begins with the death of the head of the gypsy clan. As he lies in a tent, his widow reminisces about their courtship. The film then enters a flashback mode, and the story of the courtship is told.

A gypsy caravan enters a village, and the gypsy (who looks amazingly like Eric Bogosian) entertains the villagers with his various burlesque style antics. The daughter of one of the villagers, who happens to be the only normal looking person in the place, is attracted to the gypsy, and the lovelorn pair elope together that night. The girl and the gypsy head into a forest and are pursued by the father. The story is basically good vs. evil laced with little fairy folk.

Manoushe is bizarre, and the characters are grotesque. There’s one scene inside a church, and the congregation look like a circus side show let out for good behavior. A feast follows the church ceremony, and this scene allows all sorts of peculiar behaviour to occur. One woman sits at the table with a big piece of lettuce hanging out of her mouth. Almost every scene included at least one dwarf–usually with a hunchback. This is largely a visual film with very few words spoken. Some films succeed on visuals alone (Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books, for example), but while some of the sets of Manoushe are pretty, they are not enough to carry the film. Unfortunately, the ugly characters (and they appear in abundance) suffer from either the extremes of repulsiveness (the woman with the lettuce hanging out of her mouth), absurdity (a woman wearing a heart on her head with a big arrow through it), or bordering on the exploitive (the plethora of dwarves). The film’s cover describes Manoushe as “Fellini meets the Wizard of Oz” and a “never-ending love story wrapped in a Tolkienesque landscape.” I was expecting this Brazilian film to be something unusual, exotic, and fascinating, but instead, it was strange, bizarre and dull.

Leave a comment

Filed under Brazil

City of God (2002)

“I can only read the pictures.”

 I almost rented this DVD several times, but I thought it was probably too violent for my tastes. Then a strong recommendation from a friend convinced me to watch it. I’m happy to report that City of God is an extremely impressive film. The story is set in Rio de Janeiro, in a notorious slum. The very first scene is a masterpiece of filmmaking, and when the story began, I knew I was about to watch something quite extraordinary. The film is based on the true story of rival gangs, and the story traces the origin of those gangs and their turf wars in the slum. The film is incredibly well made. The editing and photography are superb, and City of God is proof positive that directing is an art.

There are few ways to escape the slum–it’s literally walled off from the rest of the city. Poverty and illiteracy combine to lock the residents into a hopeless existence. Several of the characters try to escape the violent environment. Most fail, and a few succeed. The story covers a twenty-year time period–gang members are slaughtered as power struggles occur within the ghetto. The film smoothly shifts focus as a group of gangsters known as ‘the tender trio’ are replaced by their more violent (and much younger) successors.

Those who thrive in the slum have their own creed of behavior–gangster L’il Ze, for example, believes that all crime should be kept out of the slum, and he is prepared to punish any offenders. Everyone who lives in the slum distrusts the police, and as the story unfolds, it becomes clear why the residents are suspicious of any form of police activity. Society has abandoned the slum dwellers, and in the anarchic slum society that struggles for survival amidst chaos, it naturally follows that the police should also represent just another layer of corruption. I am aghast at the level of poverty in Rio de Janeiro. Children without hope and without a future engage in violent gun battles that result in their bodies littering the streets. These are children who had no childhood, and instead of playing with toys, they compare firearms. The slum is a reality that everyone in Brazil would prefer to forget, but when gang violence escalates beyond the normal levels, no one can ignore the social horror of this ghetto. The film is not some meaningless exercise in the glorification of gangsters; the film’s strength is found in its sociological content and strong statements regarding the corroding nature of dire poverty. City of God is not only a masterpiece of film making, but it is also an incredibly haunting true story. Scenes from this film will be forever etched on your memory.

Leave a comment

Filed under Brazil

Madame Sata (2002)

“I was born an outlaw and that’s how I’ll live.”

Joao Francisco dos Santos–also known as Madame Sata–led an extraordinary life. He was born a child of slaves in Brazil, and when he was seven, he was sold for a mule. As an adult, he lived in Lapa, Rio de Janeiro, and he spent 26 years of his life in jail. During Joao’s checkered career, he was a criminal, a boxer, a cabaret singer, a carnival star, and a murderer.

This background information is on the back of the DVD box, and it was enough to make me want to watch the film…

Director Karim Ainouz’s film Madame Sata tries to take a deconstructive approach to Joao’s life of oppositional contrasts. He was capable of brutish violence, but lived with an extended family that included prostitute Laurita (Marcelia Cartaxo), 7 ‘adopted’ children, and transgendered Taboo (Flavio Bauraqui). Unfortunately, the film’s focus is squarely on the violent, ugly side of Joao’s life, so by the film’s conclusion, we are left only with the impression of a violent man whose hair-trigger temper landed him in jail. Ultimately, the film brings us no closer to why Joao is different from any other petty criminal.

The film begins with Joao working in a club where he assists a singer. While she’s out on stage, he’s imitating her act, and when she’s gone, he’s trying on her clothes. These moments of fantasy and beauty are in contrast to the sordid violence of Joao’s life. Cabaret allows a brief beauty into Joao’s terrible life, and it’s easy to understand why he is so drawn to the fantasy it represents. Unfortunately, the film fails to cover details of Joao’s life–his childhood is a big blank–and all we see is an explosive street thug. Several scenes show his brutal, harsh treatment of those he professes to love, and Joao is hostile, unpredictable and down right unpleasant.

I watched the film for Joao’s story, but little of it was covered here in the bar room brawls, a few bedroom scenes, and the emphasis on violence. It feels like a bit of a swindle to read the cover of a DVD that professes to portray the extraordinary life of an unusual man–only to discover that the film makes few references to the more interesting facts of his life. The DVD extras include more information about Joao than one can garner from the film itself. Extras include: director’s commentary, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film, and “Seams” a documentary. Although the film is colourful, the acting good, and the music lively and exotic, overall the film is a disappointment. In Portuguese with English subtitles.

Leave a comment

Filed under Brazil

The Fable of the Beautiful Pigeon Fancier (1988)

“Your iciness flames my desire.”

In the late 1800s in Brazil, Don Orestes is the middle-aged heir with “a flawless lineage” from a wealthy rum producing family. He’s a dandy, and lives with his domineering mother in a vast mansion. Don Orestes is a creature of habit, and the inhabitants of the town can guess the day of the week according to his set routines. Don Orestes thinks rather highly of himself, but in reality the peasants and shopkeepers despise him. One day, Don Orestes spies a beautiful young girl, Fulvia, walking alone on a deserted beach. While he can’t get the girl out of his thoughts, his mother’s predictions don’t help, and Don Orestes soon becomes determined to have the girl–no matter the cost.

The title of this film, The Fable of the Beautiful Pigeon Fancier (Fabula de la Bella Palomera) gives the viewer a clue that the film in essence tells a story–a fable. The fable aspects of the film are accentuated by the notion of fate and the unexplainable power of dreams. The film is a beautiful creation with spectacular beach scenes, magnificent storm sequences and a heavy emphasis on blues. The beauty of the wild natural world seems in complete contrast to the stilted organization of the Orestes household where the vanity of Don Orestes is fed by subservient underlings and his fawning mother. Fulvia appears to be a rather wild creature–perhaps that’s why Orestes wants to possess her, for she seems to be part of the natural world while Orestes appears to be a foppish concoction of hairnets and hair oil.

Directed by Ruy Guerra (Erendira), The Fable of the Beautiful Pigeon Fancier is one of six films based on short stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Each one is complete, so it is not necessary to watch them in any particular sequence. This is a beautiful film, and like all fables it has a moral at its conclusion. Fans of the writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and fans of foreign cinema should enjoy the film. The film is in Portuguese with English subtitles.

Leave a comment

Filed under Brazil, Period Piece

The Man in the Box (1994)

“What do you mean, don’t go to the bathroom?”

In the film, The Man in the Box Joao William (Luis Alberto Pereira) is a technician who works for a Brazilian television station. He’s repairing wiring during a lightning storm when he suffers an electric shock. He’s stunned for a few minutes, but revives, and goes home for the day. Somehow, the accident causes William to appear on television 24/7.

Once you get over the impossibility of the situation, this sly Brazilian comedy film shows what happens when one unprepossessing individual takes over the networks single-handedly. William, is at first, blissfully unaware that every little thing he does is viewed by millions of Brazilians. The next thing William does after being electrocuted, is to meet and kiss his mistress–to the horror of his wife who’s watching it all on television. By the time he gets home, she has her bags packed ready to leave.

As William’s life continues to be viewed on Brazilian television, moral crusaders protest about William going to the toilet and having sex on air. With no privacy, William becomes desperate–then gets creative. William’s hogging of the airways begins to have serious consequences. Advertisers can no longer hawk their products, and Brazil is scheduled to play the World Cup. Now that William’s life is playing on every station, no one can watch the game. Brazilians react in a number of ways–trashing their televisions, sinking into despair, harassing William to get off of the networks, etc. But the situation is beyond William’s control.

The first half of the film is very clever, witty and original. My favourite scene occurs when William’s daughter tries to make sense of it all and talks to the television. After the halfway point, however, the script hits a brick wall. While it’s interesting to speculate what will happen when Brazilians can’t watch the World Cup, the film fizzles. The Man in the Box is in Portuguese with yellow subtitles in English.

Leave a comment

Filed under Brazil, Comedy

The Other Side of the Street (2004)

“I know what I saw.”

In the Brazilian film, The Other Side of the Street Regina (Fernanda Montenegro) is a divorced woman who lives alone. She has a son and a grandson, but since her ex moved in her son’s home, she doesn’t go near the place. Instead, she spends her time with her elderly dog, Betina, and she’s also a police informant. Going by the code name Snow White, she calls in tips to the police, and the informant work, while emphasizing her isolation, somehow makes her feel important and needed. One evening, she turns her binoculars on her neighbours. She spies a peculiar scene and becomes convinced that she’s just seen a man murder his wife.

When the police dismiss her claim, Regina becomes involved in the case. It seems that the neighbour, a retired judge, is a respected man. Regina stubbornly refuses to give up, and she starts snooping on her suspect–Carmago (Raul Cortez).

Fernanda Montenegro (Central Station) delivers a touching performance as a woman who has built walls–initially for emotional protection–that inevitably become barriers to human contact. In one scene Regina, almost frantic for some sort of social connection, practically begs a fellow informant to have lunch with her. Even though it’s obvious to the viewer that the other informant–code name Daffy Duck–doesn’t want anything to do with Regina, she can’t seem to take the hint. While The Other Side of the Street from director Marcus Bernstein begins as a mystery, it’s also a social commentary on adult loneliness, self-imposed isolation, and aging. The film has its sentimental moments, nonetheless, there’s a bittersweet theme that restrains the film from plunging into excess emotion. In Portuguese with English subtitles, from director Marcos Bernstein.

Leave a comment

Filed under Brazil

House of Sand (2005)

“Here no man tells me what to do.”

The Brazilian film House of Sand is a story of three generations of women, but it’s also an allegory of the tenacity and continuation of life. The film begins in 1910 when Vasco de Sa (Ruy Guerra) drags his new bride Aurea (Torres) and her mother Dona Maria (Fernanda Montenegro) out into the middle of a desert wasteland. After an arduous journey, accompanied by workers toting various household objects, they arrive right in the middle of … precisely nowhere–one sand dune looks amazingly like the rest here, and Vasco announces that they’ve arrived at their new home, and he has the deed to prove it.

Deserted by their workers, Vasco, Aurea and Dona Maria are effectively marooned, but Vasco is undaunted and he builds a house on the sand. Aurea and her mother are horrified and want to return to civilization. At this point, it becomes obvious (if you didn’t already suspect it) that Vasco is quite mad. The fact that he waves around his deed to a large plot of sand is a good indication, but when it’s combined with his desire to actually build a house on the sand, no more proof of his insanity is needed.

Aurea spends years of her life trying to escape this desolate place, and the film covers her struggles and also eventually covers the life of her daughter, Maria. The women survive thanks largely to the assistance of the descendants of runaway slaves who live nearby managing to eek a living from the harsh terrain. Even though slavery has ended in Brazil, the runaway slaves (and their descendants) aren’t particularly interested in the news that they can now return to ‘civilization.’

On one hand, the continual shifting of the sand offers no permanence to these desert dwellers whatsoever, and yet the film’s characters are firmly locked into this inhospitable location. They make homes and they survive–life continues–although its fragility is a constant. Maria’s plight is particularly pathetic as she grows up completely wild. Montenegro and Torres remain on the screen throughout the film–with Montenegro playing the aging Aurea in 1942, and Torres playing an adult Maria. Torres and Montenegro are mother and daughter in real life, and Torres is married to the director.

House of Sand is a beautiful film. Some scenes of the sand are so blindingly white, it almost appears as though the characters live in deep snow, and this particular area of the desert is subject to terrific storms–the puddles become a vast area of water during the rainy season. Directed by Andrucha Washington, the film is in Portuguese with subtitles.

Leave a comment

Filed under Brazil