this week’s TRIBUNE reviews : ‘Elite Squad’ [6/10], ‘The Fox and the Child’ [6/10]

Elite Squad                               
Brazil 2007

Starring : Wagner Moura, Caio Junquiera
Director : Jose Padilha
The Fox and the Child                       
France 2007

Starring : Bertille Noel-Bruneau, Kate Winslet (voiceover)
Director : Luc Jacquet

SELDOM has there been a more controversial winner of a major international film-festival than Brazilian cop-drama Elite Squad at Berlin in February. Though dismissed by many critics as thuggish right-wing propaganda celebrating the brutal tactics of Sao Paulo's black-clad paramilitary BOPE outfit, the film's shock victory caused many to reconsider its merits – especially as the jury was headed by veteran left-leaning director Costa-Gavras. And the previous movie by Elite Squad's writer-director Jose Padilha had been the fine documentary Bus 174 (2003), which presented modern Brazil's forces of law and order in a decidedly unflattering light.
   Perhaps as a consequence of that approach, Padilha now goes out of his way to explore – from the inside – the psychology of the most extreme manifestation of his nation's police. He's adapted a non-fiction book written by sociologist Luiz Eduardo Soares in collaboration with a pair of ex-BOPE officers, Andre Batista and Rodrigo Pimentel. The script (credited to Padilha, Pimentel and Braulio Mantovani) in set in 1997 and focuses on the tough-as-nails Captain Nascimento (Moura, imposing), whose years of BOPE service have taken their toll on his nerves, his family-life and his sanity. Keen to hand over the reins to a younger man, he identifies two plausible candidates – bookish Matias (Andre Ramiro) and the more gung-ho Neto (Caio Junqueira) – but must put their mettle to the harshest of tests.
   Elite Squad quickly became a cultural phenomenon in Brazil, a box-office smash that elevated the character of Nascimento to heroic status, especially among the more reactionary elements of the country. This almost certainly wasn't quite Padilha's intention – it's clear that, although Nascimento narrates the film, his copious voice-over is self-justifying and self-glorifying, and he's more pitiable than sympathetic.
   Padilha has been a victim of his own success here: his movie captures the police mentality ("with war, you always pay the price," snarls Nascimento) so effectively that it's hard to pinpoint his own stance on these thorny issues. It doesn't help that his poundingly kinetic style and pace barrels us along so forcefully that we barely have time to ponder what's going on and why: this is flashily intense, urban Brazilian cinema squarely in the tradition of City of God, a film with which it shares, not so coincidentally, both a scriptwriter (Mantovani) and an editor (Daniel Rezende).

AFTER the global success of Antarctic documentary March of the Penguins, French writer-director Luc Jacquet now operates much closer to home – and on a much smaller scale – with his quietly charming follow-up, The Fox and the Child. Though perhaps a little too twee and precious for some tastes, it's a godsend for parents keen to take their youthful offspring to the cinema this summer, but are nervous of slam-bang, downbeat affairs such as The Dark Knight.
   Unashamedly aimed at youngsters between five and ten, it's a genially old-fashioned, fable-like tale about a lonely little girl (winsome redheaded newcomer Noel-Bruneau, her sparing dialogue dubbed into English) who lives in an idyllic lakeside cottage with her (barely-glimpsed) parents and dog, and spends most of her time alone roaming the nearby countryside. This strikingly variable terrain (forests, rocky outcrops, fields) is home to all manner of fauna, from squirrels and frogs to the occasional bear. Most intriguing of all is a young fox whom our plucky, never-named heroine befriends and decides to tame.
   The Fox and the Child does have the occasional disturbing and/or scary scene: when l'enfant stays out in the forest all night on her own, she (initially) spooked by the unusual, unfamiliar creatures she encounters; the climax features a predictably traumatic development involving le renard. But there's nothing too harrowing here – the picture is emphatically pro-vulpine (no messy attacks on chicken-coops!); and nature isn't especially red in tooth or claw in Jacquet's wisp of a narrative. It's essentially a pretext for some outstanding cinematography and animal-wrangling – and, despite several moments of what looks like real distress for several creatures, the credits assure us emphatically that they were at no stage put in harm's way.
   A fictional tale that's necessarily rather more tricked-up than the equivalent BBC "straight" documentaries – Jacquet's use of music is heavy-handed at times; Kate Winslet's voiceover (unseen, she's the child as a grown-up) likewise a little intrusive – there are still several genuinely magical "how-on-earth-did-they-do-that?!" moments dotted throughout. And it's very hard to dislike any film which so persuasively encourages children to become interested in – and engaged with – their natural surroundings.

Neil Young
22nd July, 2008

ELITE SQUAD : [6/10] : Tropa de elite : Brazil 2007 : Jose PADILHA : 115m (BBFC) : seen 7th June 2008, Empire cinema, Rubery Great Park, Birmingham (press show – CinemaDays event)

THE FOX AND THE CHILD : [6/10] : Le Renard et l'enfant : France 2007 : Luc JACQUET : 94m (BBFC) : seen 24th June 2008, Empire cinema, Sunderland (press show)