'The Elite Squad': Berlin Film Festival Controversial Winner

Wagner Moura in The Elite Squad by Jose Padilha

Caio Junqueira in The Elite SquadThe second Brazilian production to win the Berlin Film Festival's Golden Bear, José Padilha's Tropa de Elite / The Elite Squad, a violent tale about Rio's special police unit's fight against slum-based druglords, was a controversial choice for the 2008 festival's top award. Unlike the previous Brazilian winning entry, the considerably cozier Central Station back in 1998, The Elite Squad was greeted with strong reservations in certain quarters both in Brazil and elsewhere.

The Elite Squad is a Hollywood movie spoken in Portuguese,” wrote Plínio Fraga in the daily Folha de São Paulo. “José Padilha's effort is Hollywoodian when it comes to both its technical proficiency, and its social and esthetic conservatism. A quick-paced narrative, solid cinematography, impeccable sound, well-directed performers, and production costs in the neighborhood of millions of reais [approximately 10 million reais, or about US$5 million] are some of the film's qualities – which, not by chance, was [financially] assisted by producer Harvey Weinstein (ex-Miramax).

“But The Elite Squad [also] inherited from the American cinema the schematic screenplay, the mythologizing moralism, the utilitarian cynicism, the social hypocrisy, the monolithic way of thinking. It trivializes and glamorizes torture. … It's a film that is both inhuman and authoritarian.” [Fraga's full review can be read in this forum.]

In Variety, Jay Weissberg lambasted The Elite Squad for elevating Rio's special police unit “to Rambo-style heroes,” calling the film “a one-note celebration of violence-for-good that plays like a recruitment film for fascist thugs.”

Jose PadilhaPadilha (right), whose similarly themed documentary Bus 174 (2002) received numerous positive reviews, asserts that his dramatic feature debut was “misunderstood” by some. That could well be, though claims in the Brazilian media that “foreigners” who didn't like The Elite Squad failed to appreciate it because they were unable to fully comprehend its sociopolitical context are at best disingenuous. (Just take a look at Fraga's review; more reviews can be found – via Google's translator – here.)

“I don't make any moral judgments,” Padilha told the newspaper O Estado de São Paulo, “for I've made a film about choices. There are nearly 40,000 military police officers in [the state of] Rio and 3 million drug users. The users don't have a choice, but the police officers do. They make little money, they're poorly equipped, and they risk their lives for nothing. Their choices are: to become corrupted, to do nothing, or to go to war. Each one of those is shit.”

In the same article, Padilha added, “When I remember that Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now were also called fascist, then I think I'm in pretty good company.”

The curious thing about the accusations that The Elite Squad is a far-right take on Brazil's myriad social problems is that the president of this year's Berlin jury was none other than Costa-Gavras, a talent hardly known for espousing right-wing views. The Greek-born director of Z, State of Siege, and Missing remarked that The Elite Squad was the six-person jury's unanimous choice.

After receiving the Golden Bear, Padilha told The Hollywood Reporter that the award was “for everybody who worked on this film and also for the Brazilian audience who elected this movie with their underground movement to watch it and pass it on. They are sending a clear message that they want the police corruption to stop. They want the violence to stop. This film won't do that but I have hope they [sic] people in Brazil will do it.”

Also at the festival, the director declared that he wanted “European countries to help us open the debate on the hypocrisy surrounding the issue of drug trafficking, [and] to try to help us legalize drug use, something that would prevent millions of people from continuing to die.”

The Elite Squad by Jose Padilha

Based on anthropologist Luiz Eduardo Soares, and former special unit officers Rodrigo Pimentel and André Batista's book Elite da Tropa (“The Squad's Elite”), The Elite Squad, co-adapted by Padilha, Pimentel, and City of God co-writer Bráulio Mantovani, and starring Wagner Moura (whose character's catchphrase is “war is war”; see top photo), became a cause célèbre in Brazil after pirated copies – I'm assuming that's the “underground movement” Padilha mentions above – were watched by an estimated 1 million people long before the film hit Brazilian screens. (Some sources claim that approximately 11 million Brazilians have watched the pirated version, which was taken from a print stolen before post-production work on the film had been completed. Another 2.5 million Brazilians saw it at movie theaters.)

By the way, The Elite Squad wasn't Brazil's entry for the 2008 best foreign-language film Academy Award. Since the Academy's foreign-language film voters opted not to pick Fernando Meirelles' ultra-violent and much praised (in my view, way overpraised) City of God in 2002, the Brazilian Ministry of Culture opted to submit Cao Hamburger's much more Academy-friendly The Year My Parents Went on Vacation, the story of a street-alone little boy who is befriended by an elderly Jewish man in the São Paulo of the 1970s. The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (also co-written by Bráulio Mantovani) was one of the nine semi-finalists in the foreign-language film category, but failed to make the final cut.

Next Feb. 27, the Elite Squad DVD will be officially released in Brazil, where Padilha's film is also scheduled to become a TV series. It will open in the United States (via The Weinstein Co.) in the summer.

Now, since we're talking about Harvey Weinstein, look for The Elite Squad at next year's Oscar nominations list. In fact, according to reports, Weinstein himself pressured Berlin festival organizers to include The Elite Squad in its main competition section after the film had been chosen to screen in the Panorama sidebar.

Ah, Rio's Secretary of Public Safety, who apparently gets Brazilian reality mixed up with Brazilian soaps, claims that the murderous violence committed by Rio's “elite squad” takes place only at the movies. Amnesty International thinks otherwise.

2008 Berlin Film Festival Awards

2008 Berlin Film Festival: February 7-17, 2008

2008 Berlin Film Festival - Competition Line-Up


The Elite Squad by Jose Padilha


Golden Bear: Tropa de Elite / The Elite Squad, directed by José Padilha

Silver Bear - The Jury Grand Prix: Standard Operating Procedure, directed by Errol Morris

Silver Bear - Best Dir.: Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood

Silver Bear - Best Actor: Reza Najie for Song of Sparrows

Silver Bear - Best Actress: Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky

Silver Bear - Best Scr.: Wang Xiaoshuai for Zuo You / In Love We Trust

Silver Bear - Artistic Contribution: Jonny Greenwood for the score from There Will Be Blood

Alfred Bauer Prize: Lake Tahoe, directed by Fernando Eimbcke

Honorary Golden Bear: Francesco Rosi

Berlinale Camera: Karlheinz Böhm (a.k.a. Karl Boehm) and Otto Sander


Best First Feature Award: Asyl – Park and Love Hotel, directed by Kumasaka Izuru


Short Film Award

Golden Bear: O zi buna de plaja by Bogdan Mustata

Silver Bear: Udedh bun by Siddharth Sinha

Prix UIP: Frankie by Darren Thornton

DAAD Short Film Prize: B teme by Olga Popova

Special Mentions: Superfície by Rui Xavier and RGB XYZ by David OReilly



Competition: Lake Tahoe by Fernando Eimbcke

Panorama: Rusalka / Mermaid by Anna Melikian

Forum: Shahida - Brides of Allah / Brides of Allah by Natalie Assouline


Prizes of the Ecumenical Jury

Competition: Il y a longtemps que je t'aime… / I've Loved You So Long… by Philippe Claudel

Special Mention: Zuo You / In Love We Trust by Wang Xiaoshuai

Panorama: Boy A by John Crowley

Forum: Corridor #8 by Boris Despodov


Prize of the Guild of German Art House Cinemas: Restless by Amos Kollek

C.I.C.A.E Prizes

Panorama: Revanche by Götz Spielmann

Forum: United Red Army by Wakamatsu Koji


“Label Europa Cinemas”: Revanche by Götz Spielmann

Manfred Salzgeber Prize: Megane / Glasses by Naoko Ogigami

Special Mention: Improvvisamente l'inverno scorso / Suddenly, Last Winter by Gustav Hofer, Luca Ragazzi


Teddy Awards

Best Feature Film: The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela by Olaf de Fleur Johannesson

Jury Prize: Be Like Others by Tanaz Eshaghian

Best Documentary Film: Football Under Cover by David Assmann and Ayat Najafi

Best Short Film: by Felipe Sholl


Dialogue en perspective: Drifter by Sebastian Heidinger

Special Mention: Lostage / Star-Crossed by Bettina Eberhard

Caligari Film Prize: Tirador / Slingshot by Brillante Ma. Mendoza

NETPAC Prize: United Red Army by Wakamatsu Koji

Special Mention: Paruthiveeran by Ameer Sulthan

Peace Film Award: Buda Az Sharm Foru Rikht / Buddha collapsed out of shame by Hana Makhmalbaf

Amnesty International Film Prize: Sleep Dealer by Alex Rivera

Special Mention: Be Like Others by Tanaz Eshaghian

Femina Film Prize: Maria Gruber for set design, Revanche by Götz Spielmann

Special Mention: Isabelle Baumgartner for costume design, Teenage Angst by Thomas Stuber


Readers Juries and Audience Awards

Panorama Audience Award: Lemon Tree by Eran Riklis

2nd place: Darling! The Pieter-Dirk Uys Story by Julian Shaw

3rd place: Erika Rabau – Puck of Berlin by Samson Vicent

The “Berliner Morgenpost” Readers' Jury: Il y a longtemps que je t'aime… / I've Loved You So Long… by Philippe Claudel

The ELSE Siegessäule Reader's Choice Award: Be Like Others by Tanaz Eshagian

The “Tagesspiegel” Readers' Jury: God Man Dog by Singing Chen

Volkswagen Audience Award: Conrad Oleak

Berlin Today Award: Maheen Zia for Match Factor


Prizes of the Generation Kplus Children's Jury

Crystal Bear for Best Feature Film: Buddha Collapsed Out Of Shame by Hana Makmalbaf

Special Mention: The Ten Lives of Titanic the Cat by Grethe Bøe

Crystal Bear for Best Short Film: Nana by Warwick Thornton:

Special Mention: New Boy by Steph Green


Prizes of the Generation 14plus Youth Jury

Crystal Bear for Best Feature Film: The Black Balloon by Elissa Down

Special Mention: Sita Sings the Blues by Nina Paley

Crystal Bear for Best Short Film: Café com Leite by Daniel Ribeiro

Special Mention: Take 3 by Roseanne Liang


Generation Kplus International Jury's Deutsche Kinderhilfswerk Grand Prix for Best Feature Film: GO WEST! A Lucky Luke Adventure by Olivier Jean-Marie

Special Mention: Mutum by Sandra Kogut

Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk Special Prize: My Uncle Loved the Colour Yellow by Mats Olof Olsson

Special Mention: POST! by Christian Asmussen and Matthias Bruhn


Golden Bear Jury: Greek-born director Costa-Gavras (president), Taiwanese actress Shu Qi, US film editor Walter Murch, Russian TV and film producer Alexander Rodniansky, German production designer Uli Hanisch, and German actress Diane Kruger. At the last minute, Danish director Susanne Bier and French actress Sandrine Bonnaire had to cancel their participation at the festival.

Best First Feature Jury: Ben Barenholtz, Dominique Cabrera, Jasmila Zbanic

International Short Film Jury: Marc Barbé, Ada Solomon, Laura Tonke

Ecumenical Jury: Julia Helmke (jury president), Alina Birzache, Douglas P. Fahleson, Wolfgang Hussmann, Milan Šimacek, Magali Van Reeth

FIPRESCI Jury: Par Haddal (jury president), Jurica Pavicic, Barbara Hollender (Competition); Göran Bjelkendal, Hassouna Mansouri, Thomas Abeltshauser (Panorama); Elfriede Schmitt, Pablo Utin, Gulnara Abikejeva (Forum)

Guild of German Art House Cinemas Jury: Adrian Kutter, Hans-Werner Renneke, Rudolf Huber

C.I.C.A.E. Jury: Steffen Heinke, Francois Aymé, Tibor Biro (Panorama), Thorsten Kleinschmidt, Marta Krutel, Nikos Grigoriadis (Forum)

Label Europa Cinemas: Robert Kenny, Barbara Suhren, Marko Röhr, Wolfgang Steininger

Manfred Salzgeber Prize Jury: Bee Thiam, Mirsad Purivatra, Susanne Pfeffer

Teddy Awards Jury: Maria Cyber, Marcin Pietras, Yair Hochner, Vicci Ho, Meninapurtri Wismurti, Basil Tsiokos, Melissa Pritchard, Chirilov Mihai-Cristian

Caligari Film Prize Jury: Andreas Heidenreich, Dagmar Kamlah, Julia Teichmann

NETPAC Jury: Aditya Assarat, Garin Nugroho and Meenakshi Shedde

Dialogue in Perspective Jury: Suzanne Berjot, Hélène Courtel, Marie Klein, Ariane Kujawski, Markus Müller, Haddad Mehdi, Julian Radlmaier

Amnesty International Film Prize Jury: Heike Makatsch, Selina Nelte, Oliver Stoltz

Peace Film Prize Jury: Harriet Eder, Christoph Heubner, Oliver Passek, Wilma Pradetto, Monica Ch. Puginier, Michael Schorr, Christoph Wermke, Marianne Wündrich-Brosien, Christian Ziewer

Femina Film Prize Jury: Adriana Altara, Bettina Böhler, Ann Kristin Reyels


Berlin Film Festival Site

Photos: David Prichard / TWC

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3 Comments to 'The Elite Squad': Berlin Film Festival Controversial Winner

  1. Teca, have you even read the post? The film was the point of view of a fascist, a police officer, but the film itself, at the directors point of view, was just showing a sick, twisted perspective of that situation, which is the policeman's one, that is the one that criminalizes drug use, and the drug market, read Padilha's quotation again:

    “European countries to help us open the debate on the hypocrisy surrounding the issue of drug trafficking, [and] to try to help us legalize drug use, something that would prevent millions of people from continuing to die.”.

    How does that fit with you comment?! It doesn't.

  2. Teca Arantes

    Clearly it´s difficult to non-brazilians to understand that this film was a huge protest against what CAUSES violence: corruption and those who use drugs and yet advocates for human rights.

  3. Richard H.

    Well, i hope this is better than City of God. Seems like it'll also be much more violent.