starring Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos, Milton Gonçalves, Ivan de Almeida, Ailton Graça
screenplay by Hector Babenco, Fernando Bonassi, Victor Navas, based on the book Estação Carandiru by Dráuzio Varella
directed by Hector Babenco
by Walter Chaw Argentine director Hector Babenco's ninth film, Carandiru is his fourth that, at least in an ancillary fashion, has something to do with prison (the others being Lució Flávio, Pixote, and Kiss of the Spider Woman), and it's easily the least of them, justifying the men-behind-bars tropes and queen stereotypes by hiding behind its ostensible basis in Dráuzio Varella's non-fiction fiction. The film was adapted from a book that is based on a true story, the degrees of separation from reality dramatic enough as to render its hero doctor a smirking, condescending Virgil in a stock Inferno peopled with an all-too familiar panoply: smart con; murderous con who finds God; artistic elderly con; brutal street con; possibly innocent naïf con; philosophical con; and so on into nausea. The picture makes mistakes early and often, deciding to condense hundreds of stories into a few basic sketches and then choosing to recreate each of the pastiche criminal's life story in vignette flashbacks that do more to celebrate the brassy hedonism of São Paulo than underscore its underbelly of desperation and criminality. That carnival atmosphere comes off as a fragrant bouquet of patronizing pap that revels in its sordidness yet feels curiously naïve--"Oz" by a creative team that doesn't appear to know that the bar on prison dramas has been raised since Brute Force.
The bulk of the problem comes from Babenco and Varella's desire as anthropologists to indulge in a kind of "noble-savage syndrome" that elevates the inmates of the titular Brazilian prison into metaphors for existential everymen. Their transgressions then--even the vicious murder of one of their number--are reduced to a Robert Bly cliché of men being men in a place where their manhood is the only thing that matters; the doctor muses at one point that the prison is a place where a guy's word is his most valuable currency. Machismo rules the day, but Babenco has nothing to say about the cult of manhood and so introduces all manner of hurly-burly, the worst of it a creepy inmate wedding at which a particularly flamboyant gay man falsettos "Ave Maria" in what is either a heartfelt tribute or a mawkish parody to the ritual. That lack of focus makes even potentially powerful moments like the one where two teams of inmates, preparing for an annual soccer match, line up and sing the Brazilian national anthem feel orphaned and weightless. As far as Carandiru cares to tell us, the social disintegration that results in the existence of places like this is just a slightly distasteful side-effect of screwing beautiful women, running on the beach, dancing the samba, and getting caught robbing banks.
The hanger on which all the rotgut droops is the arrival of an unnamed physician (Luis Carlos Vasconcelos) to an overcrowded penitentiary, there so that he might stem the onset of an AIDS epidemic. As he administers blood tests and admonitions with condom demonstrations, the inmates take a shine to him and tell their extended, disinteresting tales of infidelity, betrayal, and bloodshed that landed them in the slammer in the first place. Not nearly as bright as his vocation implies, the good doctor feigns interest and encourages elaboration. The rhythm of the piece, the prosaic slog of it, is interrupted for the last half-hour by a testimonial-interspersed massacre as the prisoners meekly riot (this ain't no Attica), and the riot squad starts killing unarmed convicts indiscriminately.*
A tableau vivant of a murdered jack hanging by his arms is less Pietà than just pathetic, an apt description for the entire massacre sequence that, without any kind of sociological mooring, is as absurd and arbitrary as a piano falling on Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains to end Casablanca. Simultaneously overcrowded and empty as a bucket, the documentary destruction of the actual prison that flashes before the end credits doesn't call to mind the mushroom patch montage of Dr. Strangelove so much as the film itself: ponderous, fatally corrupted, ultimately doomed to implosion. With prisoner abuse so current and sore a wound, the failure of Carandiru to elicit any sort of emotion could be due to our newfound worldliness to the real horrors of the shrinking world, but the film's flawed conception and sloppy execution are the more likely culprits. Originally published: May 28, 2004.