The Brazilian Director Who Beat Out 'Avatar'

Brazilian director José Padilha in Rio de Janeiro in 2007. Douglas Engle /The New York Times-Redux

On Dec. 30, in the fading hours of his presidency, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva penned a few last-minute directives for Brazil. Chief among them: increase protection from Hollywood for the country’s rising film industry. He needn’t have bothered; last year was a banner year for Brazilian cinema, with three national titles finishing in the top 10 money makers. One, Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within, was a runaway blockbuster. The sequel to a cops-and-criminals film by José Padilha, it has bagged 11.2 million viewers and more than $60 million, trumping imported 3-D sensations like Avatar, Shrek Forever After, and Alice in Wonderland to become the year’s top box-office draw.

It was an impressive showing for a region long thought to be in thrall to Hollywood. Even more remarkable, Elite Squad 2, which had its international debut at the Sundance Festival on Jan. 23 and will screen at the Berlin Festival later this month, is unapologetically political, a scorching slap at corruption, truculence, and betrayal in Rio’s mammoth police force. Ordinarily, such heavy fare might leave moviegoers cold, especially in a country where movies are a refuge from the reality of street crime that rages just beyond the multiplex. But Padilha has become a master at bringing even the most numbing headlines to life. More than almost any other director working in Latin America today, he manages to tell probing tales about contemporary urban society, without a CGI sequence in sight.

Not long ago, Latin America’s most prestigious directors were intellectuals with handheld cameras and art-house devotees. Entertainment was for the alienated masses, indentured to imported fluff and Dolby Surround sound. Today Latin audiences, wired to global culture, have begun to expect more from the big screen. At the same time, scores of talented, internationally trained producers and directors are taking a closer, often harsher look at their own societies. The combination has allowed the best of them—Mexico’s Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel, Biutiful), Argentina’s Juan José Campanella (The Secret of Their Eyes), Brazil’s Fernando Meirelles (City of God) and Walter Salles (Central Station)—to command loyal audiences at home and growing international cachet by mining the grit of everyday life. And few have been as successful as Padilha.

With five films to his credit, the 43-year-old Rio native has become Brazil’s top filmmaker and a leading name in the Latin renaissance. Elite Squad 2 picks up the story of Roberto Nascimento (Wagner Moura), a battle-scarred commander of Rio’s special-operations squad (BOPE). In the first film—which won a Golden Bear at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival—Moura plays Captain Nascimento as a pillar of rectitude, a lonely black-clad avenger in a Babylon of dysfunctional, blue-uniformed flatfoots. Leading a special-ops unit, he is tasked with cleaning up Rio’s bandit hills, ruled by kids with flip-flops and assault weapons. But every mission into the favelas is a descent to another ring of hell, and it burns his soul like fissile material.

The sequel takes the story a tortured step further. Nascimento has swapped his battle gear for a desk and suit, but his life is in tatters. His marriage has collapsed, and his ex-wife has moved in with his nemesis, a human-rights advocate. His son hardly speaks to him. With the drug lords subdued, organized crime has taken charge, led by crooked police who sell protection. Kicked upstairs by an administration that wants its cut, Nascimento has gone from warrior hero to impotent bureaucrat. Now he works for the enemy.

This is not subtle stuff, and Padilha’s decision to have Nascimento narrate the story in a voice-over occasionally stilts the otherwise gripping pace and supple camerawork. But when Moura fills the screen with his glower and sotto voce baritone, the story crackles. Watching his Nascimento succumb to the muck and then claw his way back to life is electrifying.

It’s a tribute to Padilha that Captain Nascimento has taken on a life of his own, becoming a reference in the national debate about the new Brazil and the fight to rescue Rio from mayhem. When lawmen conquered a bandit stronghold in the city late last year, the buzz in the streets was all about whether Rio had finally found its Nascimento.

It took Padilha himself a while to find him. As a student at Rio’s Catholic University in the mid-’90s, he majored in physics, “a sure path to unemployment,” he says. But he had a head for numbers and was quickly snatched up by a major Rio bank, where he bought and sold government debt in Brazil’s hyperinflated economy.

Padilha lasted six months—“I thought it was legitimized robbery,” he says—and then parlayed his financial skills into raising funds for filmmaking friends. But he really wanted to direct. So he rang up the storied British documentary maker Nigel Noble for a project he’d been researching on kids recruited in Brazil’s charcoal pits.

The movie, Carvoeiros (1998), aired to plaudits at Sundance in 2000. Padilha followed it with two more documentaries about rural Brazil. His big break came with Bus 174, a harrowing story of a onetime street kid who hijacked a bus in Rio and shot his hostage before taking a cop’s bullet—a scathing portrait of the violence and cruelty behind Brazil’s fetching postcard tableaux. Urban Brazil had caught his imagination, and he decided to try his hand at fiction. Inspiration came from a book by Rodrigo Pimentel, a former BOPE commander who became his adviser for both films. “I am not interested in making universal pictures that could be shot anywhere,” Padilha says. “Elite Squad 2 has echoes across other cultures, but it succeeds by telling Brazilians about themselves.”

Critics might call Padilha’s take on Rio overly pessimistic. After years of malign neglect, the police, under a new commander, have begun to take back the city’s slums. Padilha is unmoved. “We are now seeing the first 40 minutes of my film, where the police break the back of drug traffickers,” he says. “But if we don’t reform the police we run the risk of substituting drug lords with corrupt police.” Captain Nascimento’s story may need another sequel yet.