Following up her award-winning docu of a Dutch adolescent's tribulations ("Desi"), helmer Maria Ramos returns to her native Brazil for a despairing look at the trials of defendants and defenders in Rio's overcrowded judicial system. "Justice" deserves a prominent slot in docu fests worldwide.

Following up her award-winning docu of a Dutch adolescent’s tribulations (“Desi”), helmer Maria Ramos returns to her native Brazil for a despairing look at the trials of defendants and defenders in Rio’s overcrowded judicial system. Already a master of the objective eye, Ramos uses her unobtrusive camera to uncover the frustrations inherent in a vastly imbalanced society where hope is scarce and the future is dim. “Justice” deserves a prominent slot in docu fests worldwide.

Like similar institutions the world over, Rio’s Courts of Justice are housed in a soulless building whose harsh lighting and blank walls highlight misery. Truth becomes a relative concept when the majority of cases heard involve petty thieves locked inside the punishing poverty of the city’s vast slums. Jury trials are reserved for murder cases, so all other crimes are heard by a judge, usually overwhelmed by the sheer number of daily tales of desperation, theft and drug dealing.

Pic follows one case, from the first deposition to the judge’s final sentencing.

Carlos Eduardo has had run-ins with the law since he was selling drugs at age 15. Frequently arrested but never convicted until past the juvenile stage, he served two years in jail for a robbery, and is back in court to answer to charges of stealing a car and fleeing from police.

Pleading his case is Ines, an overworked public defender on the edge of burnout. During a meal with her family, she expresses her frustration with a system in which only the small-fry get dragged through the courts and jails, in a manner reminiscent of “Les Miserables.”

In some ways, Carlos Eduardo is better off than many, for he has an outside support system in his mother and (pregnant) girlfriend. Ramos received extraordinary access to the detention center, and records with shocking bluntness the conditions in the holding cells, whose overcrowding brings to mind the holds of slave ships. By shining a light inside such spaces, the director makes clear the Brazilian judicial system simply pushes the already disenfranchised — guilty or not — down a one-way road to despair.

Justice

Netherlands

Production

A Selfmade Films/NPS co-production. (International sales: Selfmade Films, Amsterdam.) Produced by Niek Koppen, Jan de Ruiter, Renee van der Grinten. Executive producers, Jan de Ruiter, Luis Vidal. Directed, written by Maria Ramos.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Flavio Zangrandi; editors, Virginia Flores, Maria Ramos, Joana Collier; sound, Valeria Ferro. Reviewed at Rotterdam Film Festival (main program), Jan. 25, 2004. Running time: 102 MIN. (Portuguese dialogue)
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