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War in Rio: the city goes to the movies

Pierre-Mathieu Le Bel


Urban violence exacerbates existing trends of inefficient urban planning and social fracture. On the one hand, some actors instrumentalize violence to legitimate aggressive security plans and, on the other hand, discourses that depict specific urban territories as territories of violence and others as ordered spaces polarize citizens in two groups, as if each was irreconcilable, and circulate an atmosphere of generalized anxiety.

Getting ready for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics has implied numerous and regular surges of violence for the Cidade Maravilhosa. If those events activated debates about public security in Rio de Janeiro and in Brazil in general, another event, this one cultural, has also created a debate on the same issues. The two movies Tropa de Elite (2007) and Tropa de Elite 2 (2010) by director José Padilha, not only were the most popular movies of Brazilian cinema but also occupied a great deal of the news. Rapidly, the line between the discourse circulated about the violence in Rio and the discourse about the movies was blurred. My paper seeks to explore how Tropa de Elite 1 and 2 produced and circulated a specific conception of place, violence and the city. My intention is, thus, not to consider movies as an object giving a more or less accurate representation of reality, but as set of relations that together create specific subjectivities and, ultimately, territorial representations. These representations will be looked at in the context of the preparation for the 2016 Olympics.

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The author would like to thank profesora Renata Brauner Ferreira of the Universidade Federal do Tocantins, as well as the reviewers of this article for their comments and suggestions.


1Among the inevitable clichés associated with the city of Rio de Janeiro one can think of its colorful carnival, the omnipresent samba, the sandy beaches, the majestic Corcovado, but also and - perhaps above all, in the world of academia - the favelas and the question of urban violence. Getting ready for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics has implied numerous and regular surges of violence for the Cidade Maravilhosa. Since the end of November 2010, in reaction to the initiative of reinforcing police presence in some of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas that where, at least implicitly, under the control of criminalized gangs, violent waves have been more recurrent and have occurred outside the boundaries of the favelas. Those violent episodes have highlighted more strongly how clichés draw from the reservoir of the real. In turn, the authorities’ reaction to it was widely circulated through the medias, highlighting how the “paranoiac city” can coexist with the “spectacular city” (Canclini 2005).

2Urban violence exacerbates existing trends of inefficient urban planning and social fracture. On the one hand, some actors instrumentalize violence to legitimate aggressive security plans and, on the other hand, discourses that depict specific urban territories as territories of violence and others as ordered spaces polarize the citizens in two groups as if each were irreconcilable, and circulate an atmosphere of generalized anxiety (Da Silva 2010).

3It is not my goal to draw a history of Brazilian cinema, nor to reach a diachronic analysis of the representation of the city or its favelas (For a History of Brazilian cinema, one could refer to Ramos [1987] or Vascocelos [2012] ; for a history of the Favelas, Do Pardo Valladares [2009] and for a history of Brazilian cities, Rodrigues [2013]). Rather, my objective is to explore, how representations circulated through a popular cinematic medium is coherent with representations of space (Lefebvre 2000) included in other discourses on the city among which we find urbanistic planning discourses related to urban mega events.

Figure 1. View from favela Santa Marta

Source:© Pierre-Mathieu Le Bel, 2011.

4My goal is to locate Rio de Janeiro and its favelas in the context of its representations by using two movies that marked the first decade of the millennium in Brazil, for its violence, and for its depiction of the Brazilian judicial and political systems. These artistic and media representations do not evolve regardless of economic, political and urban planning contingencies but are on the contrary involved in the strategies of every actors of the urban (Silk and Andrews 2011). If Rio de Janeiro appears to be a particularly good example of the entanglement of discourses on the city, and particularly its marginal spaces, and contemporary urban planning mechanisms, it is because the city was recently taking part in the two most important sporting events on the planet and this in a short time frame: the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. These events have led to major urban interventions, which in turn upset the existing social landscape or Rio de Janeiro as well as its urbanism.

5If those events activated debates about public security in Rio de Janeiro and in Brazil in general, another event, this one cultural, has also created a debate on the same issues. The two movies Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad 2007) and Tropa de Elite 2 (2010) by director José Padilha, not only were the most popular movies of Brazilian cinema (Observatório Brasileiro do Cinema e do Audiovisual 2016) but also occupied a great deal of the news. The first Tropa de Elite won the Golden Bear for the Best Movie award at the Berlin International Film Festival. Both movies were the object of intense film piracy on DVD and on the web (Boscov 2007) to the point that it was estimated by a poll survey (Datafolha 2007) that so much as a fifth of Sao Paulo’s resident had seen the movie before its official launch date. Rapidly, the line between the discourses circulated about the violence in Rio and the discourses about the movies was blurred. As Cresswell explains, quoting Rosalyn Deutsche:

Films are no longer considered mere images or unmediated expressions of the mind, but rather the temporary embodiment of social processes that continually construct and deconstruct the world as we know it […] ‘representations are not objects at all but social relations, themselves productive of meaning and subjectivity’ (2002: 4).

6As such, other authors have explored the relationship of movie representation of places and social discourses and shown how cinematic place, is “an ideologically charged cultural creation whereby meanings of place and society are made, legitimized, contested and obscured” (Hopkins 1994: 47). Varriale (2015) has recently demonstrated how Italian movies reflected the moral judgements on Italian resistance during World War II. Corsi (2014) has for his part illustrated how Cuban street cinema allows Cuban society to “show the faces of the city hidden by the official discourses, and to participate in the creation of a new public sphere for a free social debate” (Corsi 2014: 822).

7My paper seeks to explore how Tropa de Elite 1 and 2 produced and circulated a specific conception of place, violence and the city, and more especially how this conception of violence is coherent with a web of meaning (Geertz 1973) inherent to the contemporary planning of two megaprojects in Rio. My intention is, thus, not to consider movies as an object giving a more or less accurate representation of a given reality, but as participating in a set of relations that together create specific subjectivities and, ultimately, representations of space. Those representations serve, with other discourses and institutions, as mediators ensuring indirect access to reality (Berger and Luckman 1966).

8I will mostly question the violence of those two movies and hope to show that this illustration of city violence helps us interpret the violence of the city. In order to reflect on the violence present in Tropa de Elite, we can find inspiration in Kirsh (2002) and Giroux (1995) and their analysis of the movie Pulp-Fiction by Quentin Tarantino, set in Los Angeles (1994). In its time, Pulp Fiction has, like Tropa de Elite, been criticized (Barrionuevo 2007; Campos 2011; Weisberg 2008) as making use of a particularly graphic and gruesome form of violence. While Taratino’s film does not poses itself as a depiction of reality, contrary to Tropa de Elite, I contend that its use of violence is helpful in understanding the violence in Tropa de Elite and the one circulating in some discourses of the city. Like Virilio (1989), I argue that there is no war without its representations, and the later might help us understand the cultural and social processes active in city violence. Giroux, in analyzing the film, makes the distinction between three forms of violence: the ritual form, symbolic form and the hyper-real form. Ritual violence is described as extremely codified yet trivialized and targeting large audiences of the blockbuster movies. Symbolic violence aims to add meaning to action. Hyperreal violence is an end in itself. The objective is to obtain the most realistic anatomic and technical rendering of violence. It is based on a realist aesthetic which isolates the most frightening and sinister elements of reality in order to reach depiction through emphasis. The hyperreal exercises an act of extreme concentration on and magnification of specific parts of reality (Bredekamp 2009). Without resorting to violence, Denis Peterson’s photographs, paintings by Chuck Close, or the sculptures of Ron Mueck can serve as example of hyper-realistic works in other arts.

9Giroux and Kirsh added that the emphasis put on the exaggerated, hyper real, violence excluded major parts of reality and, in doing so, produced an alienating discourse. The hyperrealist aesthetic has this tendency to exaggerate a specific part of reality. This framing results in the setting aside of the other aspects of reality. Even as the aesthetic object broadcasts a realistic image, his language is that of a choice made among the more complex range of reality. The raw side of violence that is staged and put forth therefore remains as guarantor of authenticity specifically because it is the only aspect of realism remaining in the frame.

10Is the violence of Tropa de elite hyper-real? What was perhaps true for Pulp fiction does not apply so well to Tropa de Elite. I intend to show that the isolation of terrifying element in disfavor of other parts of reality does not seem to be entirely satisfying here. Instead, I suggest that what is really disturbing in the discourse of the film is not so much the violence of the movie characters as identified by some journalists (Weisberg, 2008) or blogs (Mirando a Midia 2007) than the mobility associated with this violence, its displacement to other city spaces. With Tropa de Elite the spectator is not in the presence of a violent film; this is a film about violence and its localization in city space.

11The two following sections explore each of the two movies, on the one hand by looking at their content and form and, on the other hand, by referencing to the discourses circulated on the movies through media. This part of the work rests on my geographer’s perspective of the movies as well as a review of published and online material collected between 2010 and 2016. In the last part of the paper, these representations will be looked at in the context of the preparation for the 2016 Olympics and FIFA World Cup in Rio, as observed in Rio in 2010, 2012 and 2014.

Tropa de Elite: the city goes to war

12Tropa de Elite features Captain Nascimento of the Battalion of special operations (Batalhão de Operações especiais also known as BOPE in Rio de Janeiro) who also acts as a voice over narrator. Nascimento is both part of the action the spectators are seeing, and a commentator of Rio’s underworld. Just a few seconds into the movie he explains that, because police officers also have families, they “must decide between accepting to be corrupt, flee, or join the war” and we understand that he definitely chose the later when we are made to see the particularly brutal methods of the BOPE, who’s hymn is, quite tellingly:

Homem de preto, qual é sua missão? / Entrar na favela e deixar corpo no chão / Homem de preto, o que é que você faz? / Eu faço coisas que assustam Satanás (Hymno do BOPE).

Men in black, what is your mission? / Enter the favela and leave corpses on the ground / Men in black, what are you doing? / I do things that would scare the Devil (BOPE’s hymn).

13The viewer accompanies the BOPE through its interventions in Rio’s favelas. We see its agents shooting people on sight, torturing suspected gang members and beating the suspected clients of drug dealers, without a hint of remorse. Questions of ethics for these dubious methods seem not to weigh heavily vis-à-vis the performance requirements that the political establishment as well as the captain’s own moral code impose. But Nascimento’s apparent facility to deal with violence is tempered as the birth of his son approaches. We see him getting mentally affected by his work, so much so that he asks is superior permission to be relieved of duty. He is refused this permission for the Pope is soon to come on an official visit to Rio and Nascimento’s team is required to pacify Favela Turano to ensure the Pope’s security.

14If he wants to leave BOPE, Nascimento will also have to find a substitute for himself. That is how the story allows us to follow the course of Matias and Neto, young recruits of the Policia Militar. Both strongly believe in the ideals of the police but will soon discover how most of their colleagues and all of their superiors are corrupted and have instrumentalized to their own benefit the functioning of the institution. So in parallel of the incursions of the BOPE into the favela, the informal city, we get to know the somewhat chaotic functioning of the formal city where police sells its protection to business owners and business owners pay the police to disrupt other businesses. This backdrop is reminiscent of Fernando Meirelles’ movie Cidade de Deus (2002; (Meirelles also directed, among others, The Constant Gardener, 2005; Blindness, 2008) which had depicted the imbrication of the favela, with the formal city. The real Cidade de Deus is far more peripheral than the favelas of Tropa de Elite and the violence of this movie less intense, but Meirelles’ work nevertheless had set the tone. As did Padilha with its previous opus, a documentary entitled Ônibus 174 (2002), in which we explore the event related to an hostage-taking incident that took place in 2000.

15Matias, in addition to his work in the police force, studies law in university. “For him, Nascimento says, law studies had everything to do with an officer’s job. For him, officers and lawyers got the same mission in life: to maintain the law”. In university, Mathias is not so much challenged by his blackness – which would be what most viewers expect in Brazil, since access to prestigious universities for members of the black population is more difficult to say the least – but by his BOPE identity which he does his best to hide when studying with his peers. The corruption and violent practices of the force is well known to the students and discussed as a philosophy subject in class. Uncomfortable in this context, but attracted to another student, Matias also starts to help an NGO that works in the Favela. There, it is even more important for him to hide his BOPE identity. Furthermore, Matias and his university peers are brought to comment Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1975) which further underlines the theme of power relations in the movie (between the students, the NGOs, the gangs, the police, the favela inhabitants, etc). What is most instructive for the viewer through Matias’ history, is that we can see how white students from the formal city go to the favela to purchase their drug. By seeing that, Matias’ ideals as an officer become visibly in conflict with the practices of his peers. “Matias ideals were made for a right World, far from Rio's reality”, will say Nascimento, and in effect Matias will make the choice of leaving his studies to enter BOPE, implicitly choosing violence over exchange of ideas in approaching the city’s problems. This imbrication of the formal and informal city through the drug market will be widely discussed in the media following the release of the movie. Matias, like Nascimento, comes to believe that the acts of violence in which he takes part are a consequence of the formal city drug buyers actions in supporting the drug trade; not of is own moral choices.

16Neto, for his part, works in the batalhao’s garage fixing the cars, but he discovers that what few resources could be allocated to the stations material has been siphoned by his superiors. Soon, he and Matias join with Fabio, a corrupted but unambitious colleague to steal the racket money from their superiors. Fabio is identified and taken to the favela, we suppose to be executed, but Matias and Neto follow his captors there in a convert and unofficial rescue mission that causes a shootout. The BOPE will be called to the rescue. Matias, Neto and Fabio will be saved but cannot go back to work for the same corrupted officers so they will try to enter BOPE.

17What I wish to underline here is that violence is exclusively exercised in the informal city space of the favela. If, somehow, a cadaver is discovered by the police in the formal city, it is simply moved to another space so that it would not be counted as a local crime, but even then, representations of acts of violence are only available to the spectator when they happen in the favela.

18This depiction of city space is of course reminiscent of many analyses of city space representations as dystopic both in movies (Gold 2001; Prakash 2010) and novels (Scott and Simpson-Housley 1994). But one has to keep in mind that Tropa de Elite looks at two city spaces: the favela and the “formal” city. I propose that what could be more anxiety-provoking, for the characters as well as some spectators, is the passage to the favela from the formal city. It is coherent with the classical representation of the favela (Do Pardo Valladares 2009; Maia 2010).

A favela, na tradição brasileira e, mais particularmente, carioca, é o lugar por excelência da desordem. É vista como enclave de selvageria em pleno coração de nossa metrópole mais chic, mais civilizada, mais up-to-date [...] Desde o seu aparecimento, no final do século XIX, as favelas sempre representaram uma outra face da ‘civilização urbana carioca’ que muitos pretendem eliminar, controlar ou esquecer (Alvito 2001: 91-2).

The favela, in the brasilian tradition and, more particularly, carioca, is the place par excellence of disorder. It is view as an enclave of savagery at the hearth of our metropolis, more chic, more civilized, more up-to-date […] Since its appearing at the end of the 19th century, the favelas always represented another face of the ‘cariocan urban civilization’ that many would like to see eliminated, controlled or forgotten (Alvito 2001: 91-2).

19Elements that we usually see in contemporary police procedural films such as the important digital surveillance apparatus installed in the city that make it possible for the police to be one step ahead of potential criminals or rebels (Muir 2012) are almost absent. The favela, even though it stands laterally meters away from the formal city poses as an entirely distinct space.

20The scenario then makes us follow the particularly hard training of Matias, Neto and Fabio in the hands of the BOPE. Nascimento’s training techniques are a mixture of insults and extreme exercise in particularly uncomfortable situations and are reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. What is also interesting is that this training is happening outside the city. Nature is often displaced in tropic movies of the city (Huat 2008) and it is telling that the only moment of nature in Tropa de Elite is when the BOPE recruits are trained in the jungle. Making them ready for city’s violence seems to necessitate an introduction to nature’s violence. This trope is coherent with the well circulated representation of the favelas as wilderness in the tourist industry (Broudehoux 2017).

21In effect, Rio’s representation in the film is not a city for the flaneur, like Paris (Rollet 2008) or other North metropolis (Blum 2003) it is a city for the immobile. The mobile becomes unsettling. BOPE agents are the one that have the ability and legitimacy, as NGO workers are also depicted as drug users, to travel from one side of the city to the other. Much as the noir book detective (Schmid 1995; Hausladen 2005) except that this time the questionable ethic of BOPE creates discomfort in the spectator: identifying with the mobility would mean identifying with the violence inherent to its methods. In the last scene, this seems to be precisely the unsettling alternative for the spectator: Matias, until now not entirely sure he should let go of his ideals, executes a gang member.

Tropa de Elite 2: war goes to the city

22The second Tropa de Elite became Brazil's most watched film in the history of cinema long after the film Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos (Bruno Barreto 1976) (Observatório Brasileiro do Cinema e do Audiovisual 2016). At the time of its release, the context was slightly different in Rio for the city had been granted the status of host for the 2016 Olympics the year before and security was among the chief concernes both for the city officials and the Olympic committee. The screenplay of Tropa de Elite 2: o Inemigo é Otro, had nothing to reassure them.

23The movie takes place 13 years after the first one. Nascimento, Matias and Fabio are now occupying higher positions in the hierarchy. Nascimento now commands de BOPE and Matias is his Captain. A riot erupts in Bangu high security prison and BOPE is called to stop it. An important detained gang member uses the opportunity to eliminate enemy inmates, and as Fraga, a figure of human rights defense, is called to negotiate, BOPE executes many prisoners. All of this in front of TV cameras. The political effect is immediate as Nascimento becomes head of State of Rio Public Security and Matias is transferred to lower military police duties. Meanwhile Fraga gets elected as a local representative.

24On his new job, Nascimento develops a successful strategy to exclude the traffickers from the most central favelas. But corrupted cops rapidly grasp this opportunity to take trafficking and security into their own hands. Soon, militias are formed that compete in violence with the now displaced gangs. This evolution of the balance of power in the favelas in the movie related to what was going on in Rio at the time. Already in 2008, Santa Marta favela had been “pacified” by the so called “Pacifying Police Unit”. To follow were the favelas Complexo do Alemao, in 2010, shortly after the release of the film, and Rocinha in 2011.

25Perhaps the great contribution of Tropa de Elite 1 and 2 to representations of space circulated is to make the demonstration of a movement between urban areas which hitherto were carefully disconnected in current representations of the city. It is not to say that other films did not represent violence in that fashion before, but that the circulation of Tropa de Elite has been more pervasive. This is far from trivial because, precisely, mobility was the problem in many of the violent events that shook Rio between the games and FIFA announcement, particularly at the end of 2010 when Complexo do Alemao was pacified and gang members literally attacked buses and police installations in the formal city.

26In the first film, violence is associated with the passage of the characters from the formal city to the favela. The characters were moved to place of violence. In the second film it is the violence that is displaced, it is moved toward the formal city characters. Rio de Janeiro space becomes decompartmentalised as the rules that seemed to ensure minimal security for the formal city’s inhabitant seemed to become invalid through the mobility of violence. Other characters are mobile: the first films clearly showed university students working in an NGO in the heart of a favela, in close relation with its inhabitants and the gangs, but the students were going to the favela. In the second film, the gangs go to the formal city space.

27Nacimento is soon to discover that the BOPE, drug traffickers, the militias and the politicians are part of the same system. The violence that comes to meet him as he gets out of a hospital in the formal city is not the traffickers’ violence; it is the violence of the militias. It is quite telling that the title of the second opus “O inimigo agora é outro” was translated in English with “The enemy within”. The enemy in effect is not, and Nacimento discovers it at the same time than the spectators, the traffickers’ violence, but the violence of a system that favors corruption in all layers of society.

28Both films are actually long flashback. The flashback is a narrative process that goes back in time by first offering the conclusion or part of the conclusion to the viewer in order to create interest and stimulate the desire to know more about the mechanism that led to a current situation. In both films, the narrative therefore first takes the form of an explanation, the deployment of the causes leading to the effect seen by the spectators during the opening scene. In other words, each film answers the question “why?”. In Tropa de Elite, we want to know why two police officers sneak by themselves in the crime ridden favela to murder a drug dealer, while in Tropa de Elite 2 we wonder why a policeman is assassinated when he emerges from central Rio hospital. Both whys are questioning an act of violence but the reason why we question it is not because of the violence itself but because this violence infers an unexpected act of mobility, albeit in opposite directions. In the first instance the police immerses itself in the favela defined by violence; in the second the violence comes out of the favela into the formal city space.

29In doing so, the films seem to have Padilha highlights a sudden complexity of an issue that the media had previously relayed by the specter of sensationalism. Sensationalism which itself contains the methods of hyper-realism namely the framing of only the most spectacular elements of reality. Yes, Nascimento and BOPE offer a much too simple solution to a complex problem by exerting extreme violence, but the very existence of the debate shows the multiplicity of possible interpretations and, hence, the complexity of the positions circulated with the films.

30The impact of the films was important in Brazilian public debate on city violence, police corruption, trafficking and city planning. For some it was a realistic depiction of the city (PoliticAetica 2009), for others their violence was stereotypical and lacked nuance (Campos 20011; Diaz, 2011) or, on the contrary, was a necessary contribution to public debate (Souza 2011). The prominent conservative magazine Veja even explicitly declared that if the movie enjoyed such a success it was because “it treated bandits as they should be treated” (Veja 2010: 1). Numerous blogs posted on the movie as being a representation of reality (Vida no brasil 2007; Blog de Cine 2008). Their impact on the image of the city was also scrutinized (BBC Brazil 2007). The first effect of all this was perhaps to blur the limit between the two movies and the actual city. Capitao Nascimento was named a national hero by the much read Carta Capital (Margarido 2010; Pichonelli 2013) and contributors to the Folha de São Paulo (Huck 2007) thus blurring the frontier between spectacle and reality. The most visible example of this blurring is that director Padilha and actor Wagner Moura, Nascimento’s impersonator, were immediately granted legitimacy to act as social commentators in mainstream media (Arantes 2006; Calil 2007). Rather than being seen as artists, both were represented as experts on the city and its social challenges. Again, the film complexity seemed to offer a more nuanced discourse on reality than what carioca were used to by the media.

31Many other elements contributed to make it extremely difficult to distinguish fiction from reality. The first film was inspired by Operation Holiness when, in 1997, the BOPE pacified a favela, killing 30 and arresting a further 30 presumed gang members. Rodrigo Pimentel, a real life captain of the BOPE and source for Padilha’s documentary Ônibus 174, contributed to the novel Elite da Tropa which served as base for the movie. Another book, Meu Casaco de General, by Soares (2000), a report from his experience as head of public security in Rio de Janeiro State, also served as source for Padilha. The politician Marcelo Freixo of the Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (PSOL), served as inspiration for the Fraga character. Like him he was elected at the State of Rio and like him he presided over the Parliamentary inquiry commission (Comissão parlamentar de inquérito or CPI) on the action of the militias. He was candidate for mayor in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. All those instances of imbrication of real personae with fictional characters makes it easy to forget which one is which.

32The blurring of the genres had already operated before the two films. José Padilha had made the documentary Ônibus 174 and, before that, another documentary, Noticias de uma guerra particular (War in Brazil, Salles, 1999), had circulated images of the violence in Brazilian cities and associated their directors to a genre associated to realism. Pirate DVDs of Noticias were for a time being sold by street vendors of Brazil as Tropa de Elite 2. One could then ask oneself: was the documentary in fact a fiction or was Tropa de Elite in fact a documentary? The social media also feed the blurring. Facebook or Orkut, more popular in Brazil at the time, circulated quotes like "welcome in Tropa de Elite III" when discussing the violent events taking place in the city.

33De Certeau (1984) already explained that the city is never conceived of in its entirety by the inhabitant; only fragments of it are grasped through daily life. The movie seemed to offer the spectator a view of the city as an ensemble allowing them to interpret the violent events happening in downtown Rio. The city outside the movie had temporarily left the hyperreal to return to reality. Like the characters in the film who do not live in the favela, but who see their world reached by a violence previously contained, the formal city was losing its hyper-real character by having its conflict become fully visible. The elements obfuscated by hyper-real esthetics were now fully integrated in city scape.

Mega-events in hyper-real Rio

34I contended that what was disturbing in the discourse of the films was not so much the violence of the movie characters than the mobility associated with this violence and its displacement to other city spaces. Tropa de Elite is a film about violence and its localization in city space. I propose that while the Padilha’s movies showed a mobility of violence and the interconnectedness of crime between formal and informal city that relates more to realism, hyper-realism is better found in public discourses and urban planning procedures associated to the preparation of mega-events. The two movies seemed to offer a counter narrative to the Olympic city, one that is opposed to usual representation of the cityscape in movies where “everything eventually is brought back to order” (Paquot 2005: 15).

35The short film Rio 2016 (2009) by Fernando Meirelles for the candidature of the city of Rio to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had something magical: for two and a half minutes, Rio was presented as a city where the practice of sports, climbing to swimming through volleyball and cycling, cohabited with the most vibrant urbanity in full harmony. When Rio was awarded the 2016 Olympic Games on October 2nd 2009, it was as if a part of this Olympic magic had acquired a real existence. As in October 2007, when Brazil obtained the FIFA World Cup 2014, it raised enthusiasm in all layers of the population. Could one be against the World Cup in a country so strongly associated with soccer? If ever a hyper-realist depiction of Rio there was, it is to be found in this promotional movie which chose the frame very specific elements of Rio’s space. Such mobilization of symbolic place promotions, coupled with urban policy initiatives, are both “subjects of, and subjects to, relations of power”, write Silk and Andrew (2011: 433) and culture as well as culture industries can both promote or question these mechanisms (Silk and Andrew 2008).

36As the expropriations inherent to the destruction of old infrastructure and the construction of more than 100 billions reals worth of new infrastructures started to touch more people, particularly in Rio who was hosting the two events, support and enthusiasm faltered (Gusmao de Oliveira 2012; Rolnik and al. 2016).

37To better understand the issues at the center of criticism, it is important to take into account the evolution of the Brazilian urban policy as a whole since the Brazilian constitution of 1988. If the recent federal and municipal governments have had a successful strategy of further positioning the country, and Rio de Janeiro in particular, among the essential economic and political forces of the twenty-first century, urban movements, for their part, have also seen a significant strengthening of their position in the balance of power since the end of the dictatorship.

38The National Movement for Urban Reform (MNRU) that emerged in the 1980s, has been the source of requests for greater social justice, including access to land both rural and urban. After the dictatorship (1985), the movement participated in drafting the new constitution. The chapter on the new Brazilian urban policy of the 1988 Constitution was based on a brief from MNRU supported by a petition of 150,000 names. This chapter underlines the importance of the right to the city and citizenship, democratic management of the city, the social function of the city and property, "understood as the prioritization of public interest over individual right property, which in turn implies the socially just and environmentally sustainable use of urban space". This makes clear that the right to the city as conceived by Henri Lefebvre (1968) is considered central and the idea has been taken up by the first Lula administration (2003-2010), particularly with regard to participatory management.

39In the Brazilian context, it is the whole architecture of public administration that has been shaped in this light. The idea of participatory management in particular took a bigger dimension from 2003, with the creation at the federal level of new institutional structures, responsible for urban development policy: Ministry of Cities; Council of Cities; Cities conferences “and the National Council of Cities, composed of representatives of civil society and public authorities, and in which are discussed and proposed guidelines for the implementation of the National Policy Urban Development” (Pereira and Perrin 2011: 24-25). Pereira, as Holston (2009), suggests that a new approach to urban planning became an instrument for achieving the participation of citizens in the development of master plans and ultimately of implementing their right to the city.

40Besides creating an approach to city planning that was more inclusive, Articles 182 and 183 of the Brazilian Constitution had a major impact on the relative strength of urban movements. "The policy of urban development [...] aims to complete development of the social functions of the city and ensure the welfare of its inhabitants" (Art.182, translation of author), it said. It admits the city has a "social function" supposed to be reached through the implementation of a master plan (Art.182). We see the importance of this social function in the following article: “He who possesses an urban area [...] for five years without interruption or opposition, using it for his accommodation and that of his family to become the owner if he has no other real property, urban or rural” (Art. 183, translation of author). Section 183 also establishes a right to "usucapiâo urbano”: people who have no other properties can demonstrate their peaceful occupation of a private place during a given period and obtain legal titles. In consequence, scholars like Holston (2009) and Pereira (2012) believe that these two articles have served as the foundation for the development of urban policies that can be an instrument of social justice.

41It is in this context that one must conceive the action of urban movements in lights of the preparations for the FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympics. After the considerable development of their rights, particularly in housing matters, the most disadvantaged urban groups have developed a capacity for action that has the potential to have a real impact on urban development and public policy. Thus, the arguments of opposition groups to Porto Maravilha project, a major part of Olympic planning, was partly based on Article 183 of the constitution to prevent the port, a federal public land, to be transferred to the private sector. Militant groups would rather have legalized the status of hundreds of informal residents who occupied this space years before. Similarly, by suspending, temporarily, on 18 January 2012, the tender for the realization of the Olympic site, the court recognized that the community’s rights were threatened by the action of the City Hall. Community groups also obtained changes in Transcarioca Road Realignment and increased compensations for expropriations.

42The most emblematic case of the struggle of popular movements was undoubtedly that of Villa Autodromo, a fishing community located directly on the Olympic site in the West Zone of Rio de Janeiro. Despite the fact that the winning design for the Olympic site (created by AECOM, who incidently also designed the London 2012 site) was supposed to keep Villa Autodromo community intact, the municipal authorities claimed transport axes had to be constructed and required the destruction of the favela. Residents of Villa Autodromo in partnership with the University of Rio (UFRJ) did mobilize. They manage to propose an alternative popular urbanization project that aimed at integrating Villa Autodromo to the Olympic urbanization plan. They also succeeded in attracting considerable international support. Nevertheless, in the end, the remaining houses of Villa Autodromo were destroyed just days prior to the opening ceremony.

43The exclusion of the informal inhabitants of Porto Maravilha as well as the erasing of Villa Autodromo are two elements that point toward a hyper-realist construction of the city. The Olympic Act, adopted in 2009, granted unilateral and extraordinary powers the Brazilian government before and during the competitions. This instituted a state of exception (Gusmao de Oliveira, 2012) that, through its selection process of what could or could not be visible in the cityscape, institutes the hyper-real. The government could, among other things, intervene in any public contract, at the condition that this was done in order to "maximize performance" of the Olympics. It is this clause which was used to privatize public property by first transferring them to the Brazilian Olympic Committee (COB) who could later dispose of them. The Olympic Act prohibited the use of symbols or slogans, commercial or artistic, deemed to close to those of the COB’s. The law also established a special federal tribunal whose task was to implement Olympic and FIFA related bylaws. Finally, another law created a differentiated regime of contracting (Regime Diferenciado de Contratações or RDC) for any business related to the World Cup 2014 and the 2016 Olympics, a “state of exception” (Gusmao de Oliveira, 2012) that will also be commented by Wagner Moura in 2016 (Brasileiros, 2016). All of this had the effect of excluding small street vendors and local businesses from the Olympic sites as well as rendering very difficult any expression of discontent in the city landscape (Rolnik Jennings Fernandes 2014).

Figure 2. “Eviction for the poor, Porto Maravilha for the rich”

Figure 2. “Eviction for the poor, Porto Maravilha for the rich”

Source: ©Pierre-Mathieu Le Bel, 2011.

44The two mega-events also came with an ambitious judicial process. The Pacifying Police Units (Unidade de policia Pacificadora or UPP) had the official aim of fighting trafficking gangs in the favelas. It was difficult not to draw a link between the images of state intervention through police and then military interventions in the favelas and Tropa de Elite as the UPP were created in 2008 just a year after the first of the films and were most active when the second opus was released. Most media commentators explicitly made the link while the spectator could see favelas being pacified live. If UPP managed in effect to chase violent gangs, they also served as facilitators of expropriation in central favelas like Vidigal, Rocihna, Morro da Providência and Morro da Conceçao that became prime location for speculation for their location close to the center and spectacular view of the Bay of Rio. Again, the city seemed to be choosing a particular representation of its citizens for the world to see. A last example would be the Growth Acceleration Program (Programa de aceleraçao do cresimento or PAC). Implemented by the Lula government and providing for investments of over $ 130 Millions Reals between 2012 and 2015, it was supposed to have no link with the mega-events but one look at where investments were effectively made shows only host sites for the FIFA World Cup or the Olympics were beneficiaries (Le Bel and Labrie, 2013).

45The process of exclusion and framing of urban planning and public security procedures around the image of the formal city was contemporary to debates on Tropa de elite movies. But were the movies aimed at revealing the politics of mega-event aimed at selecting. The consistent planning and judicial work of compression of space for public expression, contraction of spaces open to the poorest, and the correlated work of magnification of the most spectacular and consensual Rio de Janeiro, far more consistent to the esthetics of the hyper-real (Bredekamp 2009), as was the selective actions of arbitrary violence exerted on the favelas’ space then the troubling mobility of violence depicted in Tropa de elite. In fact, both movies and the discourses they provoked acted as a critical form of knowledge (Kirch, 2002; Natter, 2002) or, as Giroux might have put it, a counter narrative that acted as “critical pedagogy” (Giroux 2001).

46Two last examples show how circulated representations of the pre-olympic city consistently erased the presence of the favela in representations that Tropa de elite contributed to challenge. Adds of Petrobras pictured the morros of Rio, the steep mountains where the favelas are located, to be covered by forest instead of houses, and, in April 2011, Google map agreed to erase some of the favelas after the Brazilian government had requested it, arguing that it affected the image of the city (BBC 2011). It was as if the map was created before exploring place. Thus, the model preceded the territory (Virilio 1989; Baudrillard 1991), one could not distinguish what was there first or which was what, the reality or the virtual? To paraphrase Baudrillard, Rio de Janeiro had become the hyper-real: the city-simulacrum (Baudrillard 1986).


47The film is an event that is formed by social reality which, in turn, informs it. Ultimately, it is able to sculpt some of the horizons of expectations and stimulate behavior. Ironically, it was as if we had a fiction to better describe the real. The hyper-real was located outside of the films: in the social geography of Rio de Janeiro, which repeatedly adjusts the frame of its representations to disfavor the favela inhabitants, The violence is imposed on a part of the city and a large part of its inhabitants, their right to the city, their right to have visibility in the city and the representations made of it.

48If the first Tropa de Elite ended on a pessimistic note about the possibility for the individual, even one who holds a position that would seem to confer power, to influence the system in any way, the second part, is more optimistic. This time, Nascimento unites with Fraga, the human right activist, and together they intent to bring to light the workings of widespread corruption. In the end, the spectator undoubtedly has a role to play in the interpretation of cinematic discourses (Sdrigotti 2016). The finale could be interpreted as the impossibility to change the system as the major corrupt politician manages to get reelected, but it could also be seen as a possibility to go from the recurrent practice of violence to a peaceful unmaking of the hyper-real Rio de Janeiro.

49My intention here was obviously not to pose the action of the drug gangs as legitimate, but to bring out the obfuscation of part of carioca reality by official hyper-real representation of the city, here in the context of the preparation for the 2016 Olympics and the 2014 FIFA World cup which emphasize the separation of the formal and informal city. Tropa de Elite highlights a tension between this manichean vision of urban space and one that poses a dialogical relationship between favela and formal city. A dialogical relationship made visible by the mobility of violence circulated in the movies’ narrative.

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List of illustrations

Credits Source:© Pierre-Mathieu Le Bel, 2011.
File image/jpeg, 2.4M
Title Figure 2. “Eviction for the poor, Porto Maravilha for the rich”
Credits Source: ©Pierre-Mathieu Le Bel, 2011.
File image/jpeg, 3.5M
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Electronic reference

Pierre-Mathieu Le Bel, War in Rio: the city goes to the moviesArticulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 15 | 2017, Online since 07 May 2018, connection on 01 October 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Pierre-Mathieu Le Bel

Research fellow, geography, Irstea - UMR Territoires.

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The text only may be used under licence CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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