Following “Justice,” her razor-sharp scrutiny of the Brazilian judicial system, helmer Maria Ramos sets her sights on the juvenile courts and detention centers in “Behave.” Similarly constructed, with cases playing out before judge, district attorney and public defender, unadorned docu chillingly reveals a system so overwhelmed it has little chance of follow-through. No overwrought expose, “Behave” exerts its power thanks to Ramos’ clarity of vision and her unspoken but palpable understanding that above Rio’s juvenile prisons should be the sign “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” Art cinemas should lock this one into their programs.
Thanks to a law forbidding the visual identification of juveniles, Ramos was faced with the challenge of showing the judicial process but not lensing the kids themselves. In a brilliant solution, she found teens of similar ages — all coming from the favelas, or slums, of Rio, some even veterans of the detention system — to impersonate their peers. What could have been a non-starter works beautifully: The hearings were all shot facing the judge, so the “actors” could be edited in as countershots, each one carefully but naturally repeating the words spoken by the real, unseen defendants.
Though it sounds complicated, Ramos and co-editor Joana Collier make it all seem absolutely natural, maintaining the rigorous truthfulness of the docu form while honoring the legal necessities. The one figure who remains a constant is Judge Luciana Fiala, a no-nonsense type who knows the system has little chance of saving these kids, and yet through irony, cajoling and sternness still tries to tailor her interrogations and punishments to individual cases.
The sheer number of hearings is visualized in shots of teetering piles of folders, but that kind of concrete image is almost unnecessary when it’s already clear the system is sagging under its own weight. Ramos focuses on just a few cases: a boy accused of stealing a bike; a couple girls involved in a mugging; a boy, regularly beaten by his father, who finally committed patricide. Latter is obviously the most serious, but also the only one in which there’s a hint that some kind of follow-through (in this case, psychiatric counseling) is prescribed.
Ramos isn’t simply documenting the purgatory of the court system or the hell of the jails — filthy communal cells with stagnant water on the floor and no mattresses on the beds — but also the complete lack of hope. One young woman is offered parole butbelieves prison would be preferable to life in the favela. It’s an unnerving moment that couldn’t be scripted better.
A final scene, at a court hearing for a boy who ran away from detention on the day of his parole because no one bothered to explain to him what parole means, ideally encapsulates the horrifying absurdity of it all. Even the judge laughs, a sure sign of the madness of it all, before her call of “Next!” brings in a new case and another lost soul.
Though the necessity of a shot/countershot format makes certain scenes static, the personalities prevent these moments from feeling circumscribed, and Ramos takes her camera into the jail and the favelas to expand the visuals. Blow-up from HD is first-rate, as is sound.