‘Elite’ stirs controversy, box office

Brazilian film sees high level of piracy

RIO DE JANEIRO — With an accumulated B.O. of $3.8 million, and 743,734 tickets sold in 10 days, Brazilian action pic “Elite Squad” is expected to become the largest local pic this year. The film is causing quite a stir in Brazil, both because of an unprecedented level of piracy and because of controversy over its violent, drug-related subject matter.

The pic, directed by Jose Padilhas, opened Oct. 5 in 175 screens in Sao Paulo and Rio only. Paramount Pictures Brasil, which distributes pics from Zazen Producoes, Universal Brasil, the Weinstein Co. and Costantini Films, rushed more prints into distribution for a total of 336 screens countrywide.

“Elite Squad” grossed $2.26 million and sold 422,257 tickets in its second weekend, more than 40% of the period’s total B.O. and attendance, and is set to be the nation’s best commercial local pic this year, a position currently occupied by Mauricio Farias’ “Big Family” ($8.5 million at the B.O., 2 million tickets sold).

Paramount Pictures Brasil’s managing director Cesar Pereira Silva says the release marks one of the biggest openings for a local film since the early 1990s, second only to Hector Babenco’s “Carandiru.”

But “Elite” is more than a commercial success — it has provoked two heated debates. The first concerns whether the rampant piracy hurt or helped the B.O.: Although estimates from research firm Ibope say that 11 million people viewed illegal copies, B.O was still at record-breaking levels.

The unprecedented level of piracy actually gave the pic more exposure in newspapers, broadcast and the Internet. Internet communities were created to debate the feature, and youngsters posted homevideos simulating the pic’s scenes on YouTube.

On the other hand, says Silva, theatrical performance was affected in the areas most affected by piracy. “It is difficult to say whether or not the film would have performed better without the piracy,” Silva says.

The first official screening of “Elite,” Sept. 20 at the Rio Film Fest, prompted the second debate. Some viewers labeled the pic as “fascist” and “pro-torture,” charging it glamorized Rio’s Swat teams, which are routinely involved in massive shootouts with drug dealers in Rio’s hilltop ghettos, the favelas.

Filmmakers responded, saying “Elite” depicts only the reality and brings to screen the “policemen’s point of view,” something local pics rarely do. Rodrigo Pimentel, a former Rio police officer, cowrote the book that inspired the pic, as well the screenplay.

In the meantime, the pic’s star Wagner Moura published a newspaper article advocating the legalization of marijuana as a means of reducing brutal confrontations between police and drug dealers.

The buzz resulting from the dual controversies led Paramount to nearly double the film’s screen count, which paid off in the second week of release.

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