WHEN news emerged that something called Elite Squad had won the top prize at this year's Berlin Film Festival, more than a few…

WHEN news emerged that something called Elite Squadhad won the top prize at this year's Berlin Film Festival, more than a few wags expressed surprise that Steven Seagal was still making movies. That title really has a Seagalish ring about it. Don't you think?

As it transpires, this consistently exciting film, a tale of crime and punishment from the Brazilian Favelas, is probably a little too violent, a little too loud and a little too right-wing to interest Mr Seagal. Indeed, one could imagine such unflinching cinematic Vikings as John Milius or John Wayne balking at the film's apparent message: the only way to fight violent crime is to cast aside due process and trust in the grenade and the ArmaLite. Come to think of it, even Batman might find the heroes of Elite Squadtoo robust for his taste.

Directed by José Padilha, whose superb 2002 documentary Bus 174paddled in similar bloody pools, the film concerns itself with the paramilitary branch of the Rio de Janeiro police that serves under the acronym BOPE.

Capt Nascimento (Wagner Moura), a ruthless operative of the squad, is about to become a father and, tormented by the pressures of the job and those looming personal responsibilities, has decided to seek out somebody to replace him. Meanwhile, two rookies, the thoughtful Matias (André Ramiro) and the more impulsive Neto (Caio Junqueira), are discovering how corrupt the lower reaches of the Rio police have become.


When the Pope comes to visit, Nascimento and his colleagues are dispatched to the shantytowns to maintain order. In the midst of one particularly heated conflagration, Nascimento encounters the two cadets and invites them to join BOPE.

Elite Squad, based on a book by two former BOPE officers, could be viewed as a counterpoint to the consistently popular City of God. Padilha's movie is every bit as exciting as its predecessor, but the humane fatalism has been replaced with an apparent belief in the rightness of unrestrained state- sponsored violence. Campaigning students are portrayed as middle- class know-nothings; the most ruthless cops are depicted as the least corruptible.

Depending upon your inclination, that penchant for neo-fascism will either add an illicit thrill to the riveting action sequences or send you running to the exit with your hand over your mouth.

Mind you, Costa-Gavras, the unrepentant veteran left-wing film-maker, who was at the head of that Berlin jury, saw enough implied criticism of BOPE in the film to grant it the Golden Bear. Whatever the political intentions of its makers, Elite Squadis so strikingly red in tooth and claw, and so breathlessly energised, that it demands to be seen.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist