A Filmmaker and a Challenger of Brazil’s Conscience
By ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO
RIO de JANEIRO
JOSÉ PADILHA jokes that his next movie will include a bibliography at the end, to refer viewers to the copious research he does on every project. “We make movies that raise many questions that can’t be answered,” he said. “How do you solve urban violence in Rio? I don’t have all the answers.”
In a relatively short career, Mr. Padilha, 40, has made movies that have struck deep chords in the social consciousness of the country. His latest effort, “Elite Squad,” a violent look at Rio’s drug wars from the perspective of a SWAT team, has put him at the center of a furious debate over police violence and middle-class drug use and has become the most talked-about movie here since “City of God” in 2002. Critics have called Mr. Padilha everything from an extreme leftist to a right-wing fascist.
Based on the real-life experiences of Rio police officers, “Elite Squad” was Mr. Padilha’s first fictional feature film, following a handful of successful documentaries. But the harsh portrait of law enforcement has made him the target of Rio’s military police, who have demanded to know which police officers revealed their torture methods to him. Human rights groups and columnists, meanwhile, have accused him of glorifying the movie’s main character, the troubled Capt. Roberto Nascimento, who tortures and kills drug dealers by night and tries helplessly to cope with his violent life by day.
Still, Mr. Padilha said his movie had been grossly misunderstood by some, in Brazil especially. Those who have decried his treatment of police torture as excessive but necessary have missed the point of the movie, he said, which was meant to denounce the police as inexcusably brutal and corrupt. The Nascimento character ends up being a “complete antihero” in his mind, he said.
But none of that has stopped news kiosks all over Rio from displaying the Nascimento character, played by the actor Wagner Moura in a black beret, on magazine covers proclaiming him “the new Brazilian hero.”
FOR Mr. Padilha, who grew up in a privileged family that contained both scientists and artists, moviemaking was not an obvious path. His father was a scientist who received a graduate degree in chemical engineering at the University of Houston. Mr. Padilha toyed for a while with the idea of being a professional tennis player. He earned a degree in physics and worked for a spell as an investment banker.
But the business world bored him, and it was not long before he set out with Mr. Prado, a friend and well-known Brazilian still photographer, to make a documentary film.
In 1998, Mr. Padilha and Mr. Prado traveled to New York and sought out Nigel Noble, an Oscar-winning documentary director, at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. They persuaded him to come to Brazil and direct a documentary with them about workers who cut down trees in the Amazon rain forest to produce charcoal for Brazil’s steel industry.
The resulting film, “The Charcoal People,” was picked to screen at the Sundance Film Festival, a stroke of luck that set the two budding filmmakers on their way.
To raise funds, Mr. Padilha and Mr. Prado made a few television documentaries before moving on to independent documentary films. Until now Mr. Padilha’s most notable was the tale of the hijacking of a Rio municipal bus, a news event broadcast live and uninterrupted on television. His documentary about the episode, called “Bus 174,” won an Emmy in the United States for long-form documentary.
That success changed the filmmaker’s life. He was nominated to the Directors Guild and won a Peabody Award, and he and Mr. Prado hired a lawyer to represent them in the United States and an agent in Los Angeles.
More important, the success of “Bus 174” allowed Mr. Padilha to finance “Elite Squad.” He teamed with Rodrigo Pimentel, a former captain in the Rio SWAT team, called the BOPE in Brazil, to write a script that would tell the story of urban violence through the eyes of the police, a first in Brazil.
Mr. Pimentel, who had left the BOPE after becoming disillusioned with its mission to arrest and kill drug traffickers, said in an interview that Mr. Padilha soon recognized that his life would be in danger if he tried to make a documentary on the subject.
So they set out to tell a fictional tale, immersing themselves in research for nearly three years, talking to about 20 police officers and doctors who worked with the police, eventually creating Captain Nascimento.
The movie is set during “Operation Holiness,” the 1997 BOPE operation to root out a drug gang from a favela, or slum, months before the two-day visit to the area by Pope John Paul II, an operation that Mr. Padilha thought was “absurd.”
“Elite Squad,” he said, is “a sort of revenge” for the victims of police brutality and killing. “In a way, by looking at the movie the audience is taking a revenge on the police, you know what I mean? Especially in the favelas.”
BUT that kind of attitude drew a strong reaction from the police, which, after a pirated version was seen by millions, tried to get a court to ban the movie’s release. They later went after Mr. Padilha to get him to reveal the identities of police officers who had helped him make the movie. Rio’s governor stood behind the director, telling him to ignore such police requests. Mr. Padilha finally agreed to give a short deposition at his lawyer’s office but said he refused to divulge any names.
Financing initially proved difficult. Globo, a Brazilian media conglomerate, refused to contribute because the filmmakers would not guarantee a happy ending, Mr. Padilha said. “You never get to astonish the audience that way,” he said. “Our idea is to do unpolished movies.”
In the end Mr. Padilha drew interest from Eduardo F. Constantini, the son of the Argentine millionaire, who took the project to Harvey Weinstein’s film production company in New York, which soon signed on.
As the script went through its 12 treatments, Mr. Pimentel joined up with the author Luiz Eduardo Soares to produce a book, also titled “Elite Squad.” The process of coupling books with movies fits Mr. Padilha’s world view that the logic of science is better explored in books, but that movies are critical to drawing attention to subjects.
“All the films we have made so far have become a bunch of scientific pieces and have inspired work in universities,” he said. “If you publish a scientific paper it is very hard to start a nationwide debate about something. If you do this in a movie, you can start a debate.
“We like to create a bridge between those two worlds — film and science.”