Rounding off her essential trilogy on the Brazilian justice system, Maria Ramos heads for the hills, literally, and the favela known as "Hill of Pleasures."

Rounding off her essential trilogy on the Brazilian justice system, Maria Ramos heads for the hills, literally, and the favela known as “Hill of Pleasures.” Offering more hope than either “Justice” or “Behave,” this final act documents changes afoot, and while life in the slums remains a hardship exacerbated by violence, mistrust and an oppressive police presence, Ramos shows that, with the right attitude, blanket policing can have a positive effect in the slums. Determination and goodwill, however, aren’t enough to tackle corruption and the recalcitrant drug trade. Fests and smallscreen buyers should pay attention to Ramos’ achievement.

Morro dos Prazeres, or Hill of Pleasures, would be an apt name for one of Rio de Janeiro’s most stunning viewpoints if it weren’t for the guns and narcotics that distract from the vista. In 2011 the UPP, or Pacifying Police Unit, moved into the area with the idea of calming the favela. Composed of younger police officers untainted by the main force’s notorious corruption, the UPP enters slums and remains posted there, with the idea of giving residents a feeling of security while intimidating drug traffickers. Based more on old-style cops on the beat (though with a degree of dictatorial power) than the invasion tactics of most Brazilian police units, the UPP has had impressive success.

Ramos’ style is observational and nonjudgmental, with no formal interviews and no talking heads spouting statistics that depersonalize the reality of men and women trapped in a cycle of poverty and violence. The helmer chooses subjects who embody the contradictions of the favela, allowing natural ambiguities to remain in a community that can appear family-oriented, yet hold little value for life. An ideal example is Brulaine dos Santos, a swaggering teen with a record for drug-dealing, first seen getting a reprieve for good behavior. It’s likely most auds won’t clue in to the fact that Brulaine is female: Masculine and unremarkably lesbian, she’s a dope-peddler, but also a concerned caregiver to her disabled grandmother.

To Ramos’ great credit, she doesn’t come into the favela asking people like Brulaine to explain themselves. She’d not only never win their trust if she did, but equally important, doing so would add a judgmental layer the docu scrupulously avoids. Rather, the pic defies expectations by including resident Wellington Magalhaes, a bookseller who reads Bakunin; and Orlando da Silva, the community’s self-designated postman, receiving the mail from official letter carriers who don’t know the unmarked streets and are too afraid to enter the favela.

Members of the UPP are also brought into the mix, especially photogenic Capt. Jefferson Odilon, reminding his wary team that it’s constantly being watched by all elements of the neighborhood, good and bad; and Col. Rogerio Seabra, aiming to change the way people view the police force.

In all her films, Ramos focuses on a “hero,” someone generally overwhelmed by events, but who nevertheless is trying to make a difference; here da Silva and Seabra fit the bill, both men aware of the odds, yet believing that positive role models can bring about change.

Among the many strengths of Ramos’ series is her refusal to see people or situations through rose-colored glasses: The jumpy members of the UPP behave like an occupying power, and know they’re targets. An embedded police presence has proven more successful than most other programs to calm the favelas, but until the government addresses social inequities and finds a meaningful way of combating the drug trade and the culture of guns, residents of Hill of Pleasures will be fated to be cast into the justice system Ramos so chillingly depicts in the first two docus of her trilogy.

Neither anthropological nor prurient, lensing is remarkably accomplished given the uncertainties that accompany shooting in the slums.

Hill of Pleasures

Brazil-Netherlands

Production

A KeyDocs, Nofoco Filmes, VPRO production. Produced by Maria Ramos, Janneke Doolaard. Executive producer, Sylvia Baan. Directed, written by Maria Ramos.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Guy Goncalves, Leo Bittencourt; editor, Karen Akerman; sound, Gustavo Loureiro; line producers, Imagem-Tempo, Daniela Santos, Eduardo Ades; assistant director, Leo Bittencourt. Reviewed at Rotterdam Film Festival (Spectrum), Feb. 2, 2013. Running time: 94 MIN.

Cast

With: Brulaine dos Santos, Orlando da Silva, Wellington Magalhaes, Jefferson Odilon, Rogerio Seabra. (Portuguese dialogue)
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