Brazilian Auteur Talks "Fascist Vs. Marxist" Perspective In Filmmaking, Police Corruption, Social Politics & More
Jose Padilha may currently be best known for directing the upcoming remake of Paul Verhoeven’s “RoboCop,” but rest assured that the Brazilian filmmaker is anything but a purveyor of style brought in to polish off a classic property. His previous work, including the documentary “Bus 174,” the police thriller “Elite Squad,” and its new sequel “The Enemy Within,” was not only hugely successful in his native Brazil, but it was all distinguished by a sophisticated, incisive commentary on contemporary culture which will undoubtedly come in handy as he revisits Verhoeven’s iconic satire.
In person, Padilha is no less thoughtful about his work, and his opinions of art and filmmaking; The Playlist sat down with him at Austin, Texas’ Fantastic Fest, where he discussed “Elite Squad II: The Enemy Within,” and offered his thoughts about what enemies the movie might create for him. Additionally, he talked about Brazil’s illustrious history of countercultural art, his place in that community, and the place for his films within the entirety of world cinema.
Although the characters are the same, the story of “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within” is markedly different than its predecessor. How did you decide what the approach and focus of the film would be?
I’ve done three movies about urban violence in Brazil. And if you look at all of those films together they are saying something very specific, and it’s sort of like one movie leads to another in a certain sense. “Bus 174” said “the state creates violent individuals.” In “Elite Squad,” I looked at the police in Rio and again it’s the same subject matter from another perspective – the state pays cops very low wages, the state accepts a lot of corruption inside the police department, the state feeds cops with crazy theologies, and by doing that, the state breeds a corrupt police force and a very violent police force. So if you look at “Bus 174” and “Elite Squad,” they’re both saying, “the reason we have so much violence in Rio is because the state is creating an environment for the violence to take place.” We make violent cops, we make violent criminals, and no wonder we have shootouts in slums all of the time.
So after I had made that statement, the question was why? Why does the state behave this way? So in order to answer that question, I had to look at politics and politicians, because they run the state. And I had to look at how politicians behave in Brazil and how their agenda is not really to fix things but to say, how do I get elected? And how does this process, this political process, affect everything, leading to what you see in “Bus 174” and “Elite Squad?” And so, you’re right, it’s a different film, it’s a different perspective, but it’s totally complementary to the other two previous movies. So I’ve tried to make three standalone films, each of them tells you a specific story that brings you into a certain world, but if you put them all together, you get a bigger perspective on the whole thing.
How concerned were you about possible repercussions you might suffer as a result of examining police and political corruption in “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within"?”
If you look at American cinema, or German, or French, there are a lot of movies in which the lead role is a cop. It’s very common. “Elite Squad” is the first Brazilian movie ever that had a cop in the lead role – and it was shot in 2007. So that already makes you stop and think, why have Brazilians never had a cop as the main character in a movie? And the answer is that Brazil has been a right-wing dictatorship up until the ‘80s, which means that our country was run by generals from the right wing, and so all of the art in Brazil was approached from the Marxist perspective. And if you look at life from a Marxist perspective, then your heroes have to be immediately someone who’s excluded – either there’s a worker who’s on strike in a factory, or a street kid who’s excluded from society. Those are the Marxist heroes, and because filmmaking in Brazil was mainly done from a Marxist perspective. “Bus 174,” I did it myself, it’s the story of a street kid.
[But] I am not a Marxist myself, and neither am I a neoliberal, by the way, I think the dichotomy between being liberal and being Marxist is bullshit. But I decided I’m going to do it from the perspective of a violent cop, and I’m going to do it sort of like “Goodfellas,” in which you look at what it is like to be a gangster in the mafia from the perspective of a gangster. Scorsese makes you love [Ray Liotta's Henry Hill character] – and Henry is a fucking bad guy, you know? He sees people being murdered, [and] he helps murders. So I said, I’m going to go and make people love this violent cop. And so this movie which was totally contrary to what people were expecting in Brazil – and amazingly enough, it became fantastically successful with audiences. So I sort of realized with “Elite Squad,” and then “The Enemy Within” sold even more tickets, that it was time to get rid of what the premise of culture in Brazil was, which is we are Marxists fighting against the right-wing dictatorship.
So I didn’t stop for one second to think if the politicians and the police were going to come after me. My question was, what are the Marxists going to say? And it’s been a very interesting ride, because the first movie was hugely polemic, like people screamed, “this is a fascist movie” even though the movie had nothing whatsoever to do with fascism – not a thing. And then it got the Golden Bear in Berlin, and it was given to me by Costa-Gavras, who is a famous left-wing filmmaker ("Z," "State of Siege," "Missing"), so people didn’t really know what to do with the film. And then when I opened the second movie and it sold more than 11 million tickets, then the debate was over. I felt like we turned a page, you know – so it was good. But there was more danger of fights within the artistic community, than with the police and politicians themselves.
How easily does the architecture of a story like this come together? You have really complex characters, and manage to make all of their storylines and emotional needs converge.
That’s kind of one of the things I wanted to do with “The Enemy Within,” because the first movie became this polemic between, “Is it left wing? Right wing? What is it?” and in the second movie, I was trying to say subliminally that this discussion makes no fucking sense to me. And so on purpose, I created a left-wing character, Fraga, and you have the Nascimento right-wing character, and I forced them through the circumstances of the plot to end up working together, sort of saying to the people, stop it – let’s stop arguing about this. You know, there’s a famous Deng Xioping sentence that I love, which is, “It doesn’t matter the color of the cat, as long as it gets the mouse.” It doesn’t matter what the cat is, what matters is that the people are happy, and we live in a good society, and that’s what I was sort of trying to say with this plot.
But the way I think about film, there’s one specific thing I try not to do with films which is take the character out of the world just to tell the story. For instance, James Bond is on some adventure from beginning to end, and all that happens to him is the adventure. I don’t know about James Bond’s house, I don’t know his day-to-day life, I don’t know who he loves, and everything like that happens between the films. And I try to put the characters’ backgrounds inside the plot, so the plot has to deal with the corrupt politicians, the corrupt police, the drug dealer, and the wife, the son. I try to put those things in there because that’s how life is, and when you manage to do that, you usually have a more grounded and truthful story to tell. So that takes a lot of work, because you have to make a plot that has a sound, organized, dramatic structure that’s going to work in a theater, and that has all of that. And then you come up with ideas like, okay, I’m going to have the former wife marry the enemy, and so on, so we mix the plot. It takes work, man. It’s not like – I’m not a genius, like, oh! I got it. It takes years of work.
Do you think about the larger relatability your film might have when you release it in other countries? As specifically as “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within” examines its Brazilian locale, it also comments on the Iraq war and other international subjects.
I think there are things that are universal, and there are things that are local, and in “Elite Squad” you have both. I mean, the Iraq War is universal. And yes there is a metaphor in “Elite Squad” and “The Enemy Within” that has to do with weapons of mass destruction that are not there, right, but instead of having a country be invaded, we have a slum being invaded, so yeah, it’s on purpose. But the idea is to keep what’s important locally so the film is original, grounded, and edgy, even for a foreign audience, so you get to experience something you don’t know, which is what it’s like being a policeman in a particular place, which is Rio. But also to have the universals of human nature in the film, like the love of a father for a son, and stuff like this.