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Auteur of the Reactionary

"Narcos" director José Padilha is one of Brazil's most famous filmmakers. He's also legitimized deeply reactionary elements of Brazilian politics.

Wagner Moura in Narcos.

The profile of Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha has been on the rise in recent years. Having directed the successful Narcos series (2015), and a remake of Robocop (2014), his ascent was already confirmed back in 2010 when his Elite Squad 2 (Tropa de Elite 2) set a new record for Brazilian audience figures.

Padilha’s films have also been at the center of heated ideological debate in Brazil, tackling issues such as human rights, public security, hunger, and corruption. At his best, Padilha has shown himself to be an auteur capable of capturing the deep iniquities of Brazilian society. However, the director’s frequently moralizing vision of politics has also become the raw material for all sorts of right-wing fantasies.

Padilha first courted controversy with his feature debut, Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite) in 2007. The film tells the story of an “honest” police offer who refuses bribes and collusion with drug traffickers, preferring to use torture and summary execution to obtain justice. Following the film’s release, the director was accused of justifying police brutality, ridiculing human rights groups, and even of trafficking in fascist ideologies. The film’s protagonist, the rogue cop Captain Nascimento, is routinely portrayed as a hero on reactionary websites that support Rio’s militarized special commando unit — BOPE — and a number of conservative groups champion the thuggish Nascimento as a kind of patron saint of outlaw justice.

At the time, many critics begrudgingly acknowledged the director’s craft while highlighting the problematic nature of the film. Likewise, despite the brutish political thrust of Elite Squad, the broad sweep of Padilha’s output reveals a more complex picture.

The film instantly endeared the filmmaker to Brazil’s right wing while drawing the ire of human rights groups. Padilha’s stated positions, meanwhile, are more ambiguous. He’s supported leftist candidates on the campaign trail, such as the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL) candidate Marcelo Freixo. On the other hand, he backed the parliamentary coup of former president Dilma Rousseff, and has been a regular critic of the country’s most popular leftist figure, Lula. His films seem to reflect this political ambiguity, one minute portraying violent police as heroes, the next denouncing the social ills of the Brazilian people.

Padilha’s Elite Squad 2 did an about face, calling out police collaboration with reactionary politicians in Rio and stripping away the first film’s valorization of BOPE. The director has even suggested that legal proceedings were brought against him for his portrayal of the carioca police force, and that he had received a number of threats from law officials, which in part explains why the director currently resides in Los Angeles. Setting new viewer records in his native Brazil, the film dramatized Freixo’s efforts to expose police brutality, launching the PSOL activist into international visibility. Now that Freixo’s close colleague, Marielle Franco, has been assassinated, and likely for her work defending the rights of favela residents, the film is especially resonant.

As a documentarian, Padilha denounced the plight of hunger victims with his brutal Garapa (2009), and in his 2002 directorial debut Bus 174 (Ônibus 174) he portrayed the life of Sandro Barbosa do Nascimento, a victim of poverty and violence who, out of desperation, performed spectacular hijacking of a municipal bus full of civilian hostages. Most Americans know Padilha by Narcos, his first venture into TV. While Narcos often offered an unsparing look at the crimes of the US-funded drug war in Colombia, its larger narrative of the future of Latin America hinging on the battle between the politically connected cartels and law enforcement’s honest vigilantes recalled Elite Squad’s authoritarian vision.

Considering the director’s unpredictable career path, and with Brazilian politics in a state of crisis, there is an added sense of apprehension around Padilha’s new Netflix release: The Mechanism (O Mecanismo), a dramatic thriller based off the historical Lava Jato [“Car Wash”] operation, set to release this Friday.

The Lavo Jato operation consists of a series of investigations into the underbelly of Brazilian politics, where embezzlement, illegal campaign financing, and the purchasing of political backing have all thrived. The investigation has resulted in the conviction of former governors, senators, and important businessmen, in a massive trial without precedent in the history of the Brazilian judicial system. In short, it has sent shockwaves across the nation’s political and economic terrain, implicating all the major political parties and a number of the largest national corporations.

Many Brazilians, however, are concerned about the political use of Lavo Jato.

The presiding judge Sérgio Moro has been portrayed in the press as a hero and as an anti-corruption crusader. But Moro has been implicated in all types of irregularities: employing pre-trial detention in order to extract confessions, leaking confidential trial recordings, refusing to admit evidence on behalf of the defense, and of generally engaging in a toxic relationship with the media.

Many of the classified documents and testimonies emerging from the Lava Jato case were used in the media campaign that ultimately fomented the parliamentary coup against Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) president Dilma Rousseff. It mattered little that Rousseff was never part of the investigation, or that the name of her successor, Michel Temer, has been cited on numerous occasions in recordings and by whistleblowers in connection with the operation.  Nevertheless, buoyed by a media siege and an organized right wing, Dilma was found “morally culpable” as president during the scandal, regardless of the lack of proof of her involvement.

The media was equally uncritical regarding the sentencing of former PT president Lula da Silva to nine years in prison, through trial proceedings that have been widely questioned for their failure to produce any evidence or proof of wrongdoing. Lula’s conviction renders him ineligible for upcoming presidential elections, where he had been forecasted to win by a significant margin.

Brazilian society has emerged from this institutional chaos as a nation polarized into two broad camps: between those who support the parliamentary coup and those who oppose it; between those who support Judge Sérgio Moro and those who believe he is conspiring to conceal right-wing venality; between those who believe that Lula is the victim of unjust persecution and those who are convinced he is guilty as charged.

It is against this political backdrop that José Padilha is poised to release The Mechanism.

Padilha meanwhile has been at pains to position himself as a political neutral. In a recent interview with Brazilian magazine ISTOÉ, he felt the need to underscore that he harbors no political ideology of any kind. All the same, he has been a vocal supporter of the Lavo Jato operation, though asserting that corruption is a criminal matter, not a political one. And he has openly supported Lula’s conviction.

From his column in O Globo, Padilha has denounced what he calls “the mechanism,” a term that provides the title for his new series. According to Padilha, the Brazilian people are the victims of a mechanism of exploitation centered on the Brazilian state, where government contract scams, the misappropriation of public funds, and the auctioning of government positions in exchange for political favors have become systemic. This systemic corruption, he argues, has been in place since the presidency of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (PSDB) in the 1990s, and has been an enduring feature under Lula da Silva (PT) and Dilma Rousseff (PT).

The “mechanism,” as Padilha conceives it, is a supra-partisan organism that has taken hold of the Brazilian state, acting as an obstacle to improved, and much needed, social rights: education, health care, security, etc.

In passing, Padilha does actually provide a fairly realistic and detailed account of the inner-workings of the Brazilian political system: a strong presidentialist system that coexists alongside a near-equally powerful bicameral legislature, where the president is regularly forced to cobble together a governing coalition of deputies and senators through backroom deals. This encourages the power-brokering upon which corruption feeds.

What Padilha manages to ignore are the economic powers involved, as if corruption were an autonomous phenomenon contained entirely within the state. In Padilha’s account, it were as if said “mechanism” were not also an extremely lucrative affair, completely enthralled to the interests of corporations, latifundists, rentiers, and the entire gamut of Brazil’s old elite class. Padilha’s reading of the relation between economic and political power is guilty of extreme naiveté, to say the least.

Reducing all of Brazil’s social ills to “the mechanism” also manages to ignore the reality today of an unelected president, with an extremely low approval rate, who imposes austerity against the will of the Brazilian people for the sole purpose of pleasing international investors. But this is all perfectly legal and cannot be reduced to the issue of corruption. Thus the danger of Padilha both elevating corruption as an independent and decisive motor of Brazil’s social ills while removing it from the realm of politics by labeling it a solely “criminal.”

Just as important, Padilha has publicly disputed the argument, common on the Left, which maintains that the primary aim of the Lavo Jato operation is to dismantle the twelve-year progressive legacy of the Workers’ Party, effectively winding back the clock on a period in which the social reality of Brazil’s poor was profoundly transformed. Again, for the director, the only issue of interest is Lula’s guilt and the legal consequences of his conviction. Politics is a side-show.

The series will most likely adopt this argument as its central thesis, seeking to portray in as much detail as possible the cogs operating behind the “mechanism” that has usurped the Brazilian state. Still, it remains to be seen if systemic corruption will be subject to the complex portrayal it deserves.

When Elite Squad was first released in 2007, Padilha was accused of crafting an anti-hero, Captain Nascimento, who employed torture, assaulted innocent civilians, and scorned human rights groups. The film, it was said, offered a one-dimensional portrayal of a complex national reality and fortified the discourse of an authoritarian police state.

Likewise in Elite Squad 2, a film that received a positive reception among progressives for its criticism of Rio’s police force and their political helpers, Padilha’s critique still never really manages to penetrate the shell of the state. Even when Captain Nascimento points his finger at the “system,” he’s referring to corrupt politicians and not the capitalist interests behind the corruption. Perhaps in both films, the problem is not so much what is said, but what remains unsaid. Viewers should also be listening carefully for the unsaid in the upcoming The Mechanism.

Now, at a time when Brazil is facing a crisis of unparalleled magnitude, viewers will be watching to see if Padilha employs the same tactics as he did in Elite Squad: of crafting an aesthetically effective piece of cinema that is inspired, in the last instance, by a reactionary interpretation of Brazilian reality.

Like Captain Nascimento before him, the Brazilian media together with society’s most reactionary sectors have already found in Sérgio Moro a hero worthy of their stature. Brazilian progressives meanwhile are still vacillating between those who consider the judge to be at the helm of a conspiracy to destroy the Left, while others regard him as driven by little else than the elite code of an aristocratic judiciary. It’s anyone’s guess which of these depictions Padilha will offer to the world.