Director Hector Babenco is no stranger to prison movies. Pixote takes place in a boys’ reformatory, and twenty years ago he was nominated for an Academy Award for Kiss of the Spider Woman.
He returns to prison with Carandiru, a scrapbook from an overcrowded prison in Sao Paulo.
Inmate Photo Album
R for violence, drugs, sexual situations
Carandiru is a photo album of the inmates of Carandiru prison in the 1990s. These inmates practically run the prison. It is so crowded that it can not function as intended. New prisoners like Deusdete (Caio Blat) have to find their own rooms, often having to pay their new cellmates for the privilege. The most crowded cells are in the “yellow wing,” where the cowards are housed “for their own protection.” Weaklings face a choice of the yellow wing or murder. But even in Carandiru, murders don’t happen without the permission of Ebony (Ivan de Almeida), the prison’s gentle Godfather.
Some of the more memorable characters in the album are Highness (Ailton Graça), who exudes joie de vivre — outside he kept up two wives and two families; Chico (Milton Gonçalves), the oldest prisoner who learns he has a 20-year-old daughter when she calls to arrange a meeting; and Too Bad and Lady Di (Gero Camilo and Rodrigo Santoro), the skinny little nurse and the prison’s most beautiful and promiscuous “woman,” who decide to get married.
Anchoring the story is the nameless doctor (Luis Carlos Vasconcelos). (The movie is based on a book by Drauzio Varella, who volunteered at the real Carandiru, and who apparently is Babenco’s own physician.) The doctor comes to the prison as the first trained physician in at least months. He finds the two biggest problems are tuberculosis — infected men can’t be quarantined because the prison is so crowded — and AIDS. We’re able to get to know the prisoners through the doctor so well only because he is so willing to listen to them without judgement. As he eloquently says, “Society has its judges and I wasn’t one of them.”
A couple of times I wondered where Babenco was going with Carandiru. Each new character added texture and depth, but there is no linear dimension to most of the movie. When the prison riot comes, it gives the movie a climax, but it doesn’t seem narratively tied to the rest of the film. Although it is based on actual events, it’s not a very good ending.
The riot is also heavyhanded. Guards are bad; the prisoners are victims. Babenco uses slow motion to make the falling prisoners more sympathetic while the guards are mostly anonymous robots with machine guns. Even if we can objectively say that the guards were wrong (and most probably do), Babenco’s overt sympathy for the prisoners calls his portrait into question.
But Carandiru and its ending also suffer from a case of bad timing. Three years ago Carandiru might have been eye-opening, but City of God has changed all that. Carandiru tries to be detached as it portrays violence and hopelessness, but City of God does it better, with more style, and with more gut-punching emotional impact. It renders Carandiru naive and irrelevant.
Carandiru is a pretty good film but not a great one. If it gets less than a recommendation, it may be as much a victim of the times as its own shortcomings.