May, 2003, Drama

Directed by:Hector Babenco

Starring:Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos

In the late 1980's and early 90's, Brazilian Dr. Drauzio Varella worked in a Sao Paulo prison doing AIDS prevention work among its inhabitants. Over the course of his tenure, he became deeply involved in the lives of the prison's inmates and when they staged a violent riot in 1992, he decided to tell their stories in the form of a book which was published to a mixture of acclaim and national embarrassment. Argentine director Hector Babenco, (Pixote, Kiss of the Spider Woman) has now adapted this memoir-cum- expose, using the name of the prison as the title of his film. Episodic and unabashedly supportive of its subjects, Carandiru provides a fascinating if grim look at a penal environment begging for the devastation that ultimately overtook it. This is Midnight Express without a happy ending…. 

Babenco proved with Pixote that marginalized lives in a society could provide the basis for vivid drama if mixed with the right dose of social commentary; this sweeping tale of intersecting lives behind prison walls proves that point once again--almost to the film's detriment, because it weaves so many of the convicts' stories together that no one of them is given enough time to sufficiently develop. But in tracing this caring physician's treatment of so many discarded lives, the director does succeed in presenting the daily operations of the prison so precisely the audience can readily understand the process behind the meltdown.

How's this as a recipe for disaster? Take a corrections facility designed for 4000, double the occupancy, add in gross understaffing, then permit the inmates to wander around at will, dealing in illicit drugs and home-made shivs. In this inadequately supervised stew, the convicts simply established their own governing system, coalescing around a cadre of leaders who set informal rules and enforced them with bloody efficiency. And since the length of a prisoner's sentence was often at the mercy of ongoing judicial review, convicts never know how long they would be at the mercy of this unwritten but rigidly enforced code. 

Despite the circumstances, Dr. Varella found both humor and honor among these thieves and violent felons and his affection for them was reciprocated; dubbed the prison's Mother Theresa, he emerges in Babenco's script as a skilled but non-judgmental physician whose concern for his patients represents one of the few experiences many of them ever had of genuine caring. Whether attending a gay wedding ceremony in a dilapidated cell or using a visiting female singing star to urge greater condom use among the prison population, Varella's quiet generosity of spirit stands in stark contrast to the guards’ brutal indifference in riding herd over what they considered an overstuffed human garbage dump.

Babenco's cast is uniformly excellent, but his appetite for visual excess, (apparent in Kiss of the Spider Woman) remains carefully muted here until the film's climax, when it emerges in an overdone, gory riot, which ruins much of the polemical impact the director sought to provide in depicting the convicts lives. Despite the movie's overwrought last reel, Babenco succeeds in shaping oddly appealing stories from a group of very unappealing lives.        

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