Moviegoers who know the tides of recent Brazilian history will likely get more from Hector Babenco's new prison movie, Carandiru, than the rest of us, because the filmmaker tells us so little about the society beyond the walls that helped shape the violent yet carefully ordered world within them. On the other hand, this is a deeply engaged citizen/artist at work, the same director who took us inside a Brazilian juvenile facility in 1981's memorable Pixote, drew a stark portrait of a jailhouse murder in Lucio Flavio and explored the tender, uncertain truce between a gay inmate and a straight one in his American-made The Kiss of the Spider Woman. When the cell door clangs shut, Babenco thrives. We get an authentic jolt of life behind bars and a look at the compromises men make for survival.
What we see here in the early 1990s inside Carandiru prison, the infamous Sao Paulo detention center where 7,500 men were regularly crammed into cellblocks designed for 3,000, is an elaborate social structure -- as weirdly elegant as it is Darwinian -- in which the weak are cast aside (or cared for) by the strong, inmate leaders wield more power than penal administrators, and the pecking order determines everything from the availability of designer wall-hangings, private TV sets and crack cocaine to the denial of a few square feet in which to curl up and grab a private gulp of air. This form of self-governance may seem cold-hearted. But compared to, say, the bloody totalitarianism by which inmate gangs like the Aryan Brotherhood now rule many American penitentiaries, it looks oddly rational, with a lot of room for stolen comforts and secret pleasures. Inmate law prevails, but this brand of inmate law respects the varieties of inmate need.
In tone and texture, Carandiru falls somewhere between the brutal reality of the cable-TV prison series Oz and the romanticized fantasy of The Shawshank Redemption, and that middle ground reflects not only Babenco's obsession with careful, almost theatrical character development, but the 1999 book from which the film was adapted. The Brazilian best-seller Carandiru Station was written by Drauzio Varella, a prison doctor who worked part-time inside the detention center for 14 years, getting to know the inmates and, if we can believe him, gaining their confidence as physician, confessor and friend. The same irksome note of self-congratulation that characterizes Varella's memoir seeps into the movie (as played by Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos, the good doc remains invariably wise and patient throughout), and it's easy to suspect the author of self-service, despite his noble battles against AIDS, TB and scabies.
Nonetheless, the film's inmate portraits are vivid, well rounded and, in some cases, surprisingly witty. As Carandiru winds on (for 145 minutes, you may want to know) toward a tragic conclusion that crushes our notions of a prison society that, for its own purposes, works, we come to care deeply about these imprisoned men -- not least because we also get flashback glimpses of their previous lives and the crimes they committed. Among the dramatis personae: round-faced old Chico (Milton Goncalves), who patiently awaits a visit from his daughter and dreams of flying off in a balloon; the tough, macho Highness (Ailton Graca), whose appetites on the outside included two feuding wives and two separate families; florid Lady Di (Rodrigo Santoro); and tiny No Way (Gero Camilo), whose gay romance is not only accepted inside Carandiru but celebrated as a sign of civility preserved. There's the doomed drug dealer Zico (Wagner Moura), whose crack supply gets the best of him, and a pair of fastidious, middle-class bank robbers (Floriana Peixoto and Ricardo Blat) who ran afoul of the law only because one suspects his wife of infidelity. Best of all, Dagger (Milhem Cortaz), a lifelong killer who, in a sudden revelation of self, refuses to stab a fellow inmate. The sad, foolish stories of these lives, past and present, fold together with a kind of cruel beauty.
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So when the climactic massacre comes, we're really not ready for it -- despite our long-held expectations about prison movies. That some trifle, an exaggerated slight, could trigger an inmate riot may make sense. But when the Sao Paolo riot squad storms in and starts slaughtering the prisoners -- 111 were killed, on October 2, 1992 -- we don't know why. What hidden tensions in Brazilian life caused this to happen? Was it sheer irrationality? Political determination gone crazy? Babenco provides no context, and we are left baffled except to suppose that the endangered street urchins he revealed to us in Pixote never really had a chance -- that hard life and fate would bring them, a decade hence, to their destruction. In any event, we are left hugely disturbed and disoriented, as if our house, too, had been invaded by madmen and raked with machine-gun fire. Given that, it's a relief when Babenco's cameras are on hand to witness the 2002 implosion of Carandiru Prison. In eight seconds the ugly, blocky gray buildings tumble into piles of rubble, seeming to take with them the souls of the men who once lived inside. The moment is pure Babenco -- full of the irony regret, and human failing that transcend history itself.