A low-structure, high-involvement Brazilian free-for-all destined to take its place among hellish prison films, “Carandiru” plants a fist in the viewer’s stomach not so much with violent images (though the ending certainly has enough of them), but through its surprising depiction of the criminal class as emotionally vital human beings. Not every viewer will welcome the feeling of being inside an overcrowded Latin American prison for two and a half hours: Knowing you can walk out at the end of the film is no small relief. Marking a return to form for director Hector Babenco (“The Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “At Play in the Fields of the Lord”), pic has been a champion at the Brazilian box office, and, with sufficient critical support, it has a shot at worldwide audiences. Sony Pictures Classics is planning the U.S. release this winter.
Based on Dr. Drauzio Varella’s phenomenal bestseller, “Carandiru Station” is a fictionalized account of his experiences working in Sao Paulo’s infamous House of Detention in an AIDS-prevention program. The film’s haunting treatment of life and death owes much to Babenco’s fateful encounter with Varella (the oncologist who pulled him through his fight with lymphatic cancer, which kept him away from directing for most of the ’90s).
Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos plays the good doctor as a smiling, non-judgmental figure who ironically comes across less as a character than as the director’s (and viewer’s) p.o.v., anchoring a multitude of individual stories.
Film opens on the aftermath of an attempted murder in the prison that took place when a young man recognized the violent Dagger (Milhem Cortaz) as his father’s killer.
Howling and banging on the bars like infuriated animals, the inmates are eventually quieted not by guards but by prisoners like Ebony (Ivan de Almeida) who have authority inside. The idea is swiftly conveyed that the prison is governed by its own strict codes and by-laws. As the head of the prison prophetically remarks, the prisoners own the place and can make it explode anytime they choose.
Drug-dealing is a normal way of life inside, with crack and AIDS taking an especially high toll. But, rape is not tolerated, and a convicted rapist is beaten and finally murdered by his fellow prisoners. Attacking a guard, as the mild-mannered Chico (Milton Goncalves) is provoked to do, is inhumanly punished with a month in a dank, airless cell.
Babenco pulls no punches in showing the raw ugliness of the jail, built for 4,000 but occupied by 7,500 inmates, and its rough-trade inhabitants.
Fortunately the action is lightened up by unexpected humor. Interviewing his patients as he tests them for HIV, the doctor has a chance to hear their often fanciful tales. Several of these spark flashbacks which mercifully take the audience outside the claustrophobic jail. The main one concerns Highness (Ailton Graca), a free spirit who juggles two very sexy women, his wife and his mistress, until the former sets the bed on fire.
In another outside story, two boys who grew up together both end up on the wrong side of the law, one for drugs and the other for murder. The tale, which is film’s most direct attempt to show the causes of social violence, suggests that all the inmates could be seen as grown-up versions of the unfortunate street urchin Pixote.
Tied to an extremely loose episodic structure that offers no dramatic momentum, the film tends to stagnate after a while. However, it moves forward on the sheer strength of its portraiture, thanks to an exceptionally good ensemble cast that brings the inmates to life as individuals, not genre types.
Most amusing is the odd couple Lady Di (Rodrigo Santoro) and Too Bad (Gero Camilo), physically ill-matched but romantically made for each other.
Just when it seems that there will be no change of pace, beyond the exhilarating interludes of an extremely liberal Visitors Day and a dead-serious soccer match, film winds up with a shock ending. It reconstructs in horrifying detail the 1992 prison riot that was brutally quelled by police with the deliberate (according to pic’s sources) massacre of 111 inmates.
Babenco and venerable cameraman Walter Carvalho achieve a look of almost gruesome realism, though film lacks the visual excitement of some of Babenco’s earlier work, possibly because of the cramped quarters in which it was shot. Part of the lensing took place inside the real House of Detention before it was closed, and its demolition last year provides a cathartic final image to a very tough picture.