The Philosophy of Noir in Elite Squad

Luiz Rosa


Dr. Christopher Hoyt


In the Brazilian film Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite) and Elite Squad 2 the Enemy Within (Tropa de Elite 2 o Inimigo Agora é Outro) by José Padilha, the audience follows the dramatic story of Roberto Nascimento. He is a hardened and relentless police officer of a special squad in Rio de Janeiro who struggles with the violence and corruption of that world out of control.

In 2010, the government organized in Rio de Janeiro was an operation to seize the German complex, a set of 13 slums in the city of Rio. After this operation lots of officers posed to the media as if each of them were a persona of Capitain Nascimento. Even with the second film released condemning the police, and deconstructing the national hero idea of Nascimento’s character, Brazilian society was already convinced otherwise by the media. This idea that is a catharsis for Brazilian people diminishes the importance of the second film.

Elite Squad and the Philosophy of Labyrinths

The movie is set in the amazing images of Rio’s slums where we have the first impression of that labyrinthine world. But only with a deep look into the story can the audience truly understand this labyrinthine system in which the Brazilian society is trapped. The Philosophy of labyrinths by Umberto Eco in The Philosophy of Film Noir can help a better understanding of this analysis; we are first introduced to the classical Greek maze, the heroic legend of prince Theseus of Athena. Outraged by the menacing labyrinth built with orders from Minos of Creta, Theseus goes into the maze to face the Minotaur; a monster with a bulls head and human body who had been feeding on young Athenians. But before going inside the maze Theseus meets and falls in love with Ariadne: Minos daughter. Afraid of losing her beloved, Ariadne armed Theseus with a sword and a “clue of thread”. Theseus than goes inside the maze, kills the monster with his sword, and flees using the thread. Comparing the story of Theseus with Nascimento, we can see why the audience understands, from him, the role of the hero, even though he is not. Outraged with the corruption of the police, and the dealers’ domain over the slums, Nascimento got into the BOPE, the Elite Squad the film is about. His past isn’t shown but understood trough his voice over on Neto and Mathias’ story. Two honest rookies policemen that once found themselves trapped into the system, had to choose to be dirty, to be silent, or to engage in war. Nascimento once chose engage in war and by that, like Theseus in the maze, goes inside the labyrinthine slums of Rio to kill its Minotaurs. He is a skilled captain; he can go easily in and out the slums with no difficulty as Eco reports about the classic maze. Nascimento’s “Ariadne” is his wife Rosane and her string of clues leads him to his unborn child, which in his acknowledgement is the clue for him to leave the labyrinthine slums for good. Only when the film goes deeper inside the story of Neto and Mathias can we realize that we are actually in a mannerist maze.

The Mannerist maze, named by Eco after the sixteenth-century art movement, is characterized by distortions of the perception. The labyrinth here becomes more abstract, with distorted mirrors and upside-down staircases that lead into another. Inside this maze nothing is what it seems. In the film, the clash of five different worlds shows us that Nascimento’s reality is much more complicated. Nascimento, Neto and Mathias, the dirty cops, the middle class college students, and the dealers’ lives are connected by the system which distorts this world leading them into one another. The system is the maze and in the mannerist maze there is no need for a Minotaur, since the labyrinth is its own Monster. The system articulates interests and places these different worlds against each other until they collide. They can strike each other, but the system remains untouched.

Nascimento’s voice over conveys that he knows about the system, but he has chosen to ignore it. He acts in bad faith, lying to himself; he treats himself only as a gear of the system, a very important one; he had a mission and nothing else matterd, orders are orders and you must follow them. He is blind to other complex problems of the system and the inhumane nature of his work. Nascimento constantly puts his life on the line until he can’t handle the pressure anymore. When he tried to find a way out, because of his family, this is where the first film starts.

Nascimento only acknowledge that he is more than a gear of war in the second film. In the second one, we go deeper inside Nascimento’s family environment, and, therefore we get emotionally closer to the character. His perceptions of the system and his surroundings evolves. Once objective and focused on his journey, now the voice over becomes more critical, and makes realizations about the world. While Subsecretary of Intelligence at the Secretary of Public Safety, Nascimento finally acts in good faith by acknowledging the truth. He tries to strike back the system and realizes that he is trapped in something more complex than a mannerist maze. In the end of the second film we get to know that the system is a rhizomatic maze, the maze of film noir. Every clue in the film only leads Nascimento deeper inside the system. This maze transcends its people, even the heads of the system; nobody is indispensable. In Nascimento’s final statement, we have a clear image of the rhizomatic labyrinth. “The system remained standing. The system cuts off its hand to save its arm. The system reorganizes, entertains new interests. Creates new leadership. As long as the conditions for the system’s existence remained, it would resist”. It is a maze without a beginning or an end but always middle, no center or perimeters, it has no way out.

Nascimento and the Hard-Boiled Detective

Nascimento is undeniably a hero in the second film, as Stephen Holden says in his review of Elite Squad 2for New York Times In This Version of Rio, Violence and Gore Are All in a Day’s Work; “Nascimento becomes a pacifist — just a sadder, wiser and more determined warrior”. This makes the character of the first film much more interesting. He isn’t the protagonist of the first Elite Squad, but he is the hard-boiled detective of that story. He is anxious, very ambiguous, relentless, and violent; he struggles with that but is unquestionably incorruptible. Nascimento is trapped in a maze, not only the system but the self. He struggles trying to find a replacement, but he is actually trying to find himself. In the first film after choosing Neto as his replacement he starts to regret, he takes pills trying to calm his panic attacks. His wife intervenes, she pressures him, she informs him that he won’t need pills anymore after getting out of the squad, and he replies “I’m getting out to where?” Even if he could easily get out, he doesn’t know where to go, what to do, his work became who he is. As the Hard-boiled detective of film noir, Captain Nascimento is lost investigating a case, but actually investigating himself.

Crossing a line between Nascimento and noir detectives like Philip Marlowe from The Big Sleep and Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon we can see how close to noir his character is. The noir detective is supposed to be realistic; given the proposal of the film and its impact on Brazilian society Nascimento cover this aspect. He lives alone and has no friends; he starts the film with his wife but ends up all alone, only with some kind of twisted partnership with Mathias created by revenge. He has some kind of femme fatale characterized by his wife interfering with his work. He uses abductive method to investigate. Not only a good guess like noir heroes, he is very good at it; torturing thugs until they release information. He is nonintellectual, nonartistic, not traveled, and aggressive. The character’s form is sadistic; the audience gets satisfaction derived by him harming others. His natural opponents are city cops, which may seem unlikely because he’s a cop. However, the city cops are dirty, and he is no normal cop, he is from the BOPE, the Elite Squad in Rio. He may not drink or smoke like Noir detective, but is seen taking pills to calm his nerves. The only and biggest difference between the Hard-boiled detective and Nascimento is that his work is not only a job for fee; he really believes that his role in the system is a very important one. He is not a classic noir hero, if anything he would be neo-noir, but it is interesting how close he comes; after seventy years of noir the character of the detective remains contemporary.

Society of fear and anxieties

The use of explicit violence helps to build this depressing dystopian world where Nascimento stands; he struggles but he also fights back which conveys to the audience some kind of sadistic catharsis against that chaotic and violent world the system has created. That’s why Nascimento of the first movie goes beyond the one in the second. Nascimento of the first film reaches the audience in a personal level, into the fears and anxieties of the Brazilian society. He remains in the memory of those who want to be like him, not only cops; he stands as an image of a national hero.


- Conard, Mark, ed. The Philosophy of Film Noir. 5th ed. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky

- Press, 2006. Print.

- Villarejo, Amy. “Cities Of Walls: Mediated Urbanity, Viral Circulation, And Elite Squad.” Amsterdamer Beiträge Zur Neueren Germanistik 82.(2012): 419–430. Academic Search Complete. Web. 21 Nov. 2012.

- Backstein, Karen. “Elite Squad.” Cineaste 33.4 (2008): 55–56. Academic Search Complete. Web. 21 Nov. 2012.

- Matheou, Demetrios. “Elite Squad.” Sight & Sound 18.9 (2008): 59–60. Academic Search Complete. Web. 21 Nov. 2012.

- Schwarzbaum, Lisa. “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within.” Entertainment Weekly 1181 (2011): 86. Academic Search Complete. Web. 21 Nov. 2012.

- Taylor, Matthew. “Elite Squad The Enemy Within.” Sight & Sound 21.10 (2011): 61–62. Academic Search Complete. Web. 21 Nov. 2012.

- Holden, Stephen. “In This Version of Rio, Violence and Gore Are All in a Day’s Work.” New York Times 11 Nov. 2011: 8.Academic Search Complete. Web. 21 Nov. 2012.

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