Thursday 11 August 2011

True grit: "Elite Squad: The Enemy Within" and "The Salt of Life" (ST 14/08/11)

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (18) 115 mins ****
The Salt of Life (12A) 85 mins ***

A strong week for sequels with subtitles. José Padilha’s Elite Squad won the Berlin Golden Bear in 2008 amid heated debate over whether its punchy portrait of Brazil’s anti-corruption unit formed a critique or celebration of policing methods commonly denounced as fascist. In follow-up The Enemy Within, the Squad’s malign influence spreads further still: despite presiding over a deadly prison riot, hardline Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura) gains a promotion to a Government post that proves just as corruptible as the Rio slums. “Let the cops handle it,” someone insists. “The problem is the cops,” comes the response.

Padilha, like Paul Greengrass, is a sometime documentarist who brings to his fiction work both verisimilitude and a real fascination with the way individuals are connected: newly mature and ambitious, his latest only enhances the original’s decidedly complex socioeconomic perspective. That Nascimento himself gets to narrate remains a provocation to liberal sensibilities, though Moura tempers this reactionary’s blunter outbursts with a growing institutionalised weariness, and it’s typical of how Padilha strives to give everyone their voice, whether the self-justifying politico or the killer quoting Hamlet over his victims’ charred remains. A wipe-clean board might help with joining some of its dots – but, collectively, these films are right up with The Wire for engaged, timely and thought-provoking drama.

Writer-director-performer Gianni di Gregorio enjoyed arthouse matinee success in 2009 with Mid-August Lunch, his tale of a fiftysomething bachelor looking after a parlourful of ageing mothers. I found it slight and sitcommy, but I can see why it struck a chord: it was a film for anyone who felt the cinema had overlooked them in its obsessive pursuit of youth. That invisibility is central to the sort-of sequel The Salt of Life: Gianni remains devoted to mamma (Valeria de Franciscis Bendoni, no less formidable), but now sets out to find the one woman who doesn’t take his presence for granted.

Again, this is an essentially kindly, gentle vision – these gentlemen get up when a lady leaves the table, even if it’s just to pine wistfully after what they know they cannot have – and one that elicits sly chuckles: di Gregorio films himself performing yoga moves, only to get stuck doing so. The film, too, runs out of puff after an hour, but physiognomic pleasures supplement its good cinematic etiquette: here is a parade of unapologetically wizened faces, carrying bags and baggage from which all manner of rich and varied life experience can be unpacked.

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within and The Salt of Life open in selected cinemas from today.

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